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Research - To Attribute, or Not to Attribute

Giving proper credit to others in your work need not be a comedy of errors with a tragic ending.

By Marc D. Donohue and Douglas M. Green

That is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous plagiarism charges, or to take arms against a sea of carelessness, and by attributing end it?Illustration By David Clark

There is a great deal of uncertainty among many engineers-from students to those in industry to faculty members-about when ideas should be attributed to others in a publication or presentation. This confusion is exacerbated by the fact that engineers in some cases have different rules and standards in this area than would, say, a lawyer or a stockbroker.

For example, practicing engineers usually are more concerned with finding the correct answer than with the source of that answer. It is more efficient to spend an hour finding an answer in a book than to spend a week deriving it, or a month measuring it experimentally. As long as the "borrowed" information is credited, this qualifies as good engineering practice.

The rules are different in academe, however. What might be considered perfectly acceptable in a report by a practicing engineer could be considered professional misconduct in an academic setting.

No matter what the context, though, referencing the work of others has several common purposes. First, it provides the reader with additional information sources. References also give due credit to the pioneering efforts of others, and guide the reader to work that may be needed to understand your results and analyses. Most importantly, proper referencing helps to put your work in context, without which your paper or presentation is much less useful and much less important.

Playing 20 Questions

There can sometimes be a conflict between serving the reader and giving proper credit to others. For example, when you reference a mathematical derivation, is it more appropriate to reference a textbook, or should you find and reference the original journal paper containing the derivation? Most would agree that referencing the original paper would demonstrate stronger scholarship, but what if the original derivation is not in English, or is in the literature of another field and probably would not be accessible to or understandable by most of your readers?

While it is important to cite the key relevant work, it is not necessary to cite every paper in the field, and it is inappropriate to reference papers that are not discussed. However, some questions that arise in this context are: Is it necessary to cite work that contradicts your conclusions? Or if you question its accuracy? Is it appropriate to cite and discuss a seminal paper that has proven to be faulty? If so, do you have a responsibility to tell the reader why this prior work is flawed? The answers will usually depend on the situation.

Multi-author papers raise even more questions. In what order should authors be listed? What responsibilities do co-authors have to ensure that everything in the paper is correct? Can co-authors disagree about the validity of one step in a derivation or the accuracy of a particular experimental measurement? Can co-authors disagree about the conclusions of their publication? It is clear that you must get permission to list someone as a co-author, but must you get permission to list someone in an acknowledgment? For practicing engineers, there often are company policies or customs, and there are a wide variety of acceptable practices that govern these dilemmas. However, for academics there are very definite answers to most of these questions. In particular, it is generally accepted that all co-authors must attest to the accuracy of the results and conclusions presented in their area of expertise.

Frailty, Thy Name is Carelessness

Generally, when engineers fail to properly attribute ideas to others, it's because they didn't think things through. When you encounter real world questions about attribution, treat them as you would any technical dilemma, and treat others as you would like to be treated.

When the answers are not obvious, seek out your dean or a more experienced faculty member and solicit their views. In the end, remember to serve the reader, but also respect the contributions of those on which your work is built.

And when in doubt, attribute.

Marc D. Donohue is a chemical engineering  professor at Johns Hopkins University, where his course offerings include engineering ethics. Douglas M. Green is chair of ASEE's Engineering Research Council and associate dean for research at Johns Hopkins. The opinions in this article are solely the authors'.

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