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Fraud is in the air

As both the hiring and the fall teaching cycles get underway, we’re seeing a rash of articles in the Chronicle about various forms of Academic fraud. Today’s “Strange Tales From the Trenches” by Daniel J. Ennis and Arne R. Flaten (http://bit.ly/8ms1F) follows, for example, last Saturday’s “Should You Discuss Your Work in Progress?” (http://bit.ly/fEUk5) by Gina Barreca. The latter provoked a stream of comments by academics concerned about their research ideas being stolen, and I felt compelled to add a remark about not letting our concern to protect our ideas prevent us from engaging in the types of collaboration that brought so many of us into academics in the first place.

There’s more to be said than simply urging folks not to lose their sense of sharing, however. Those who have published their ideas in OCW know that OCW publication can be a way to stake their claims to ideas or techniques long before they are ready to publish research articles. The digital versions are date-stamped by the hosting server, so, should they actually need to take a case to court, they have tangible evidence of their prior claims. This is where it’s important to remember that OCW publication does not mean relinquishing either copyright or the right to attribution.

Granted, this isn’t enough to prevent someone from pursuing your line of research and drawing more insightful conclusions than yours (ideas cannot be copyrighted). This (as both Barreca and several commentators pointed out) is part and parcel of academic life. It will, however, give you recourse in cases like those described by Ennis and Flaten, where work either simply is used without permission or citation or more egregiously is misrepresented as someone else’s creation. Having your work visible and labeled as your own allows the vigilant to find evidence of fraud when they go looking rather than harbor vague suspicions they have no way of substantiating.

On the brighter side, sharing your nascent ideas with students, with colleagues and with the wider learning community opens you to further opportunities for academic growth. Those potential thieves are also your potential cheerleaders, muses and collaborators. Keeping your ideas to yourself might keep you safe, but it will also keep you isolated.