Personal Ethics

In my recent “Friday Phone Call” with David Dower, all about infrastructure for the arts, I shared that infrastructure has three meanings or three components: the physical bricks and mortar infrastructure of buildings and studios and light boards; the organizational infrastructure of companies, governments, and policies; and personal infrastructure like the personal symbiosis one achieves between work and that which is not work. Another aspect of personal infrastructure for the arts is (are?) personal ethics.  This topic has been on the forefront of my mind since Jonah Lehrer admitted to fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan (following close on the heels of his admission of “self-plagiarism”).  Today, Fareed Zakaria admitted to copying part of his Time column from an article in the New Yorker.

Image from the “Just a Perspective” blog. Photographer unknown.

Between these two events, I was asked to write a short piece for a trade magazine.  I was faced with a dilemma.  If I were to write about entrepreneurial thinking and teaching, as requested, should I start from scratch, find new sources, attempt to draw new conclusions, or should I write without looking at previous work, drawing on the body of knowledge I keep in my brain. I chose to do the latter, but only if the following disclaimer be included:

Note: While I have endeavored to write something original, what follows inevitably draws from my earlier writings for Theatre Topics[i], the Creative Infrastructure blog[ii], conference presentations[iii], and Chapter 15 of Lighting and the Design Idea, 3e, co-authored with Jennifer Setlow.

Researchers can circle around the same topic for years (some even for decades) so it is inevitable that phrases and even sentences will appear in more than one article by the same author.  In light of recent events, I felt it important to make that obvious to the potential readers of this new article.  Lehrer’s self-plagiarism (I’m not even going to touch the fabrication question, at least not here) violates an ethical principle on another level because the New Yorker had paid him for original writing and he provided material that included segments that were not original.  He took the easy way to his payday and got caught.

Personal ethics ground our professional choices: our choices about what to submit for publication; about how we treat our co-workers and (especially) our subordinates; about how we (re)present cultural differences; how we grade student assignments.  I am influenced in my ethical choice making most especially by two philosophical treatises.  The first is Immanuel Kant’s “second formulation” of his categorical imperative, which, paraphrased and simplified, basically states that people should never be treated as the means to an end but only as ends in themselves.  (I used this in a recent post about means and ends of policy interventions related to the arts.)  The second, and the one that most influences my thinking about diversity in the arts, is Rawls’ Theory of Justice.  It’s complicated, but it basically calls for the equality of all individuals and the equilibration of social injustices.  His theory is communitarian in nature and antithetical to much of the libertarian thinking that pervades our political landscape.

These ethical constructs work for me because I believe in them.  I am not a preacher or proselytizer for them in the specific.  What I am an advocate for is consciously adopting an ethical position.  If artists and arts managers, and even arts organizations, adopted an ethical position, they would have guideposts for their decision-making, they would be better able to navigate the society that both surrounds them and of which they are part, and they would actuate what Howard Gardner* calls “The Ethical Mind.”  Would that Lehrer and Zakaria had done so.

* If you are a regular reader of Creative Infrastructure, you’ll recognize that I frequently reference Gardner’s work, especially his Five Minds for the Future (HBR, 2008) which include, in addition to the ethical mind, the disciplined mind, the synthesizing mind, the creating mind, and the respectful mind.

[i] Essig, L. (2009) Suffusing entrepreneurship into theatre curricula, Theatre Topics, 19(2), 117-124.


[iii] Material related to teaching habits of mind for arts entrepreneurs was presented at the 2011 annual conference of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Milwaukee WI and at the 2012 Higher Education Creativity Conference in Chengdu, China.

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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3 Responses to Personal Ethics

  1. My personal opinion is that unless you cut and paste a paragraph or more from one of your previous works, self plagiarism is unlikely to be a problem.

    My personal view is that ‘common knowledge’ covers a lot of ground. And includes a number of ideas/concepts which are, for example, well known within a specific field. Or commonly understood in Western Civilization.

    Let me give three examples:
    1. Evolution.
    2. Edge City
    3. Paradigm Shift

    Someone might write about the evolution of cell phones and no one would expect a citation of Darwin’s Origin of Species.

    I would be comfortable using the term, “Edge City” without attribution to Joel Garreau. However, I might want to attribute because his definition is quite precise.

    Paradigm Shift? Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” is reputed to be the most cited book in the later half of the 20th century. Investopedia defines paradigm shift as: “A major change in how some process is accomplished. A paradigm shift can happen when new technology is introduced that radically alters the production process of a good.”
    Read more:
    So it has diffused into common usage and can be simply a synonym for ‘big change’.

    I think you own your ideas. You were hired to write the article based on your experience developing and communicating these ideas.

    Self plagiarism should be limited to using significant chunks of a prior work product without attribution. And this is not so much a huge ethical delimma as a matter of publishers buying ‘clear title’ to text.

    Maybe I am treating this too casually.

    Given your concerns, I might try to use one of the electronic plagiarism detection programs. There is currently a self plagiarism program for academic papers in computer science called Splat.

    And instead of your suggested disclaimer, a more general mention of your work — a book, lectures, &c. further establishes your expertise and establishes that your ideas have been expressed in different venues in the past.

  2. [My own disclaimer, right off the bat: I am the editor of the trade pub for which Linda wrote an article. It will appear in the Oct. issue of Stage Directions mag. Just for transparency’s sake.]

    When I was managing editor at my company I discovered self-plagiarism by one of our writers, and we eventually had to let him go. So, obviously, I am anti-plagiarism, and in favor of original writing and research.

    And I am gladly going to print your intro note in the magazine, as this is something you strongly felt needed to happen. But may I play devil’s advocate for a second?

    Obviously, crime is bad. Banks get robbed. But it does not follow that I have to declare, when I walk into a bank, “I am not a criminal.” There is an assumption of trust, of innocence, that surrounds any social interaction. And, in fact, is the bedrock of our judicial system. Innocent until proven guilty. Crime still happens, but it does not follow that everyone must protest they are not a criminal at all times.

    I respect your integrity, and the fact that your ethics moved to write this disclaimer. It’s why I asked you to write for my pub in the first place. (Well, that and your insights, ideas and quality of expression.) And I think that yes, a personal code of ethics would definitely steer people away from plagiarism. But just b/c Jonah Lehrer was one does mean I am, or that I should have to defend myself against the charges pro-actively.

  3. I like your disclaimer. There is no ethical crime in quoting one’s self, for goodness sake. Rewriting and re-editing and making different versions of pieces for different audiences is the stock-in-trade of a strong, employable writer. Unless, of course, you are being paid to write something completely original which is, to quote someone I can’t remember “a horse of a different color”. (To be honest, I’m not sure where writing book reports on Two Years Before the Mast 5 years running in 5 grades and 5 schools falls).
    For 10 years I wrote a regular column for an arts magazine. Without resorting to footnotes and being limited to 500 words, I worked to give credit where credit was due when I riffed on the ideas or quotes or research of others. It was always a challenge.
    But to codify one’s sense of personal ethics is akin to creating a mission statement for yourself, as the late Stephen Covey suggested. It DOES provide a roadmap for staying on course in this slippery slope of a world.

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