Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Why is Using Others' Work so Problematic in the Western Academic World?

I've been wondering about this obsession of attribution of ideas (in particular, those of scientific value rather than economic value). I see most pros, especially those related to communication/collaboration on future work, any monetary gains due, validity of the idea in the first place, and so on. However, what are the cons to this system and have we made provisions for minimizing them?

Considering that most humans are so little self and so much influence, more so in today's law-based society, the extent of emphasis paid to individual contributions particularly in science is something non-intuitive to me. On the one hand, science goes out of its way to talk about the science and not the "person/people" behind the science in the publications themselves, and on the other, scientists are always in a race to be acknowledged as the first. Just to clarify, I'm a fan of the individual (to a certain extent) but I fail to fully understand why this attribution is important on a historical timescale (say 100 years) if we aren't going to draw hypotheses or conclusions on the person/people behind the science to advance the process of scientific thought (which we don't really do). For example, the scientific method, "a method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses," (Wiki) is still the only method of science. My problem would be the word "systematic" because a lot of the reading that I've been doing on these so-called geniuses in science seem far from systematic in their approach to life.

Today, I came across this super clear explanation, which kind of puts things into perspective for me. But this thought is definitely something I would like to revisit, evaluating if and what you are losing because of this obsession (time, progress?), and what are you gaining from it?


There are widely varying cultural assumptions about how knowledge is created and legitimated, and varying norms about the treatment of existing writings by subsequent authors. The Western academic world is highly individualistic and places emphasis on being able to judge and give credit for the work of each student or researcher. "World majority" students from collectivist societies come from nations where one's experiences, thoughts and ideas are interwoven with those of others, both living and dead (Fox, 1994, p. 37). For them, the idea that one must sort out which individual is associated with each idea is both novel and incomprehensible.
In contrast to our [U.S.] emphasis on individual effort and personal success, where children learn to think of themselves as "I" instead of "we," where shades of individual opinion are carefully studied and singled out for praise or criticism, collectivist societies teach that in group harmony lie security, contact, comfort, and identity. (Fox, 1994, p. 36)

Some of you may have been taught that your own words are not important, that scholarship consists of knowing and using the words of well-respected authorities. Others of you may come from cultures where claiming individual credit is inappropriate, where such behavior is seen as putting yourself forward in undesirable ways. For some, writing has always meant finding and using the writings of others. Being a student in a U.S. university may require that you make adjustments in your assumptions about knowledge, ownership and individual work because these may differ from the academic rules for scholarship in U.S. institutions.

Because Western culture is individualistic, it places value on being clear about which individuals created an idea or wrote about it. Similarly, written words are viewed in some sense as belonging to the individual who wrote them.

(and I'm from the latter school of thought)

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