Dear Elizabeth—Re: Your Work ...

The email began as many do, with a generous supply of kind words about the research published at my personal website. Then came the paragraph that laid out the actual reason for writing:

Hi Elizabeth,

My name is ... .  I'm writing a book …. [Specifics are omitted here, of course.]

The reason I'm contacting you is, I find it difficult to not use some of your material when writing up my research. What I want to do is give credit where credit is due. Please let me know what your policy is on this. I prefer to include a single statement of appreciation for your work.

Hmhh. Where should my response begin?  It's not as though the inquirer is someone I actually know—someone whose experience and mindset I also know. Should I refer them to QuickLesson 15, on the “Five “Copywrongs’ of Historical Writing." Perhaps not. Perhaps they would have difficulty seeing the correlation between their issues and the examples laid out in that lesson.  No. A targeted tutorial seems more appropriate. And so, I write:

Dear Mrs. Inquirer:

Your kind words are much appreciated. That particular research project has been a major time investment for me—over 3,000 logged hours at this point—all filled with curious records, endless frustrations, and wonderful epiphanies.

You ask me to “let you know what [my] policy is” on the use of “some of [my] material.” On the last page of each report I’ve posted at Historic Pathways, you should see a notice that explicitly states my “Sharing Policy.”  Beyond this, the ordinary rules for avoiding copyright violations or plagiarism would apply. We can summarize those into three points.

  • When we copy someone else’s words into our own piece of writing, we put quotation marks around those words, followed by a reference note that cites the source from which we took those words. Our citation should be exact, not just a general citation to a whole body of work, but a precise citation down to the page number. If someone else’s thought is important enough for us to quote it, readers of our own work will want to know where to find it for themselves—and we, at a later date after our memory of the material has gone cold, may need to go back and check it.
  • If we paraphrase someone’s conclusion, opinion, or interpretation (not just change a word or two here or there, but actually put the entire thought in our own words), we place a reference note at the end of the passage and identify the exact source, as above. Otherwise, our readers will assume that we, ourselves, came up with that conclusion, opinion, or interpretation.
  • If we copy someone else’s abstract or transcript, we treat it the same way that we handle a quotation. Our citation is to the person who made the abstract or transcript and to the article, report, or book in which that abstract or transcript appears. We then add to the citation a note to say that the abstractor/transcriber cites [whatever our source is citing]. Each abstract or transcript represents someone else’s attempt to read the old penmanship and/or interpret a legal transaction. Each abstract represents someone else’s decision as to what parts of the document are important and what parts might be left out. Neither is the equivalent of our using the original record for ourselves. If the abstractor of transcriber made errors and we were to “silently” copy what they published, then we would not just take credit for their work but also be blamed for their mistakes.

You say that you “prefer to include a single statement of appreciation for [my] work.”  If we were to take that approach in our own compilation or writings, we would leave our readers with no idea of how much or how little of the other person’s work we have copied. When we yield to temptation to take that approach, thereby masking the critical issue, we’re then tempted to copy far more of the other person’s work than the Fair Use Doctrine allows.

Distilling our research into a book or article does take a tremendous amount of time. If our research is broad ranging, it is likely to involve a number of issues of this type. I hope this guidance helps you in all those cases.





PresenterMedia ( : created 22 May 2017),  "Applause Custom Text," item 13932; used under license.

Posted 22 May 2017