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A confession.

April 1, 2009

I’ve written for publication for nearly 20 years now, but I still don’t feel like I have a great hold on ethics.

(Apparently, I’m not alone, though I highly doubt I’ll be as stupid as this guy any time soon.)

I police myself like crazy. I do my best to avoid plagiarism. I cite and cite again; I call my source to make sure I can add an “and” into the quote; I rewrite and get new quotes and mix in my own ideas and try desperately not to copy something. But then we get into the realm of ideas, and… do I? Where’s the line?

Maybe it’s kind of like sexual harassment in some ways: you swear that you’d do anything to stop it, because its very existence demeans the reputation of your coterie, and yet it lurks in places you’d never consider, simply because it’s easier just to let it slide when it’s so small.

My friend Liz had some interesting thoughts the other day on blogging ethics. (Now I feel a little sketchy, taking my cue from a classicist. *I’M* the journalist here, right?) I guess I’m mostly confused about when, where and how to cite ideas. Sure, we all take our ideas from all sorts of places, but I’d want people to cite something I said, right? And then there’s the matter of what she terms the “linkstravaganza.” She also makes another good point when she notes that linking is crucial to understand the context of the discussion.

Don’t get me wrong; usually, I’m pretty confident. I run my work past a colleague or friend and see how it looks. I do that even if it’s 100% from my brain; I value feedback right up there with air. Some days, though, there’s no time.

The tough part, as someone who finds the most value in experiential learning, is that it’s very hard to step up and say, “Okay, I don’t know.” Of COURSE I don’t know; there are oodles of situations I’ve never experienced. But I don’t want to admit that I don’t know something — even just hypothetical — and thus risk my reputation among colleagues/superiors. In my case, this usually means that I simply move on to a different story, technique or anecdote, one where I’m on firmer ground.

I wonder how I’d write if I weren’t afraid to ask.

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