September 9, 2011

In a Google-ized, Internetworked world, where so much information is at our fingertips, and the point of posting your thoughts on the Web is to spread them as widely as you can, what constitutes intellectual theft?

That issue came up last week when a University of Texas at Austin professor alleged that a freelance writer for The Post stole his work and used it in an essay in the Aug. 28 Outlook section.

The essay, by freelance writer Anna Lewis, was partly about the early history of women in computer science. During the 1960s and ’70s, women were welcomed into the field as computer programmers. In numbers and responsibility, women were gaining ground rapidly, unusual for science fields back then.

Lewis’s essay opened by looking back to a 1967 article from Cosmopolitan magazine, “The Computer Girls,” which touted the new science as a career that young women should pursue. Lewis finished her essay by describing her recent difficulties in bringing young women into Fog Creek Software, where she worked as a recruiter.

The problem is that Nathan Ensmenger, an expert on the history of technology, says that the first half of Lewis’s essay is based largely on his, and fellow academics’, considerable research into the role of women in the early computer industry. Indeed, that subject is one of his specialties. It did not take long for his colleagues to notice the Outlook essay and bring it to his attention, since it sounded a lot like his work — particularly in its use of the Cosmo story.

Ensmenger argues that discovering such sources, and providing context and analysis, is the core of what historical research is all about. In this case, finding a clean and usable copy of the “Computer Girls” story took years, as older issues of Cosmopolitan are rarely archived in libraries. As a complement to the publication of his recent book on the history of computer programming, “The Computer Boys Take Over,” he scanned some images from the Cosmo article and posted them on his Web site. Lewis acknowledged none of his work nor the years of research that underlay his analysis, he said.

Lewis said she found the Cosmo article on Ensmenger’s site through a Google search. Her only attribution was to Thomas J. Misa’s essay collection “Gender Codes: Why Women Are Leaving Computing,” in which Ensmenger has one key essay and cites the Cosmo story. Lewis did not cite Ensmenger directly.

Ensmenger said that if Lewis’s Outlook essay had come to him as a class assignment, with so little attribution, he would have failed her and referred her to the school’s honor board for discipline.

Lewis and her Post editor, Rachel Dry, don’t see it that way. To them, citing the book of essays, in which Ensmenger’s was one of six that Lewis said she read and relied on, was adequate attribution.

Was it plagiarism? “Absolutely not,” said Lewis. “I have stolen nothing, I have plagiarized nothing. I attributed according to my best judgment.” Lewis said this was her essay, informed by her time as a recruiter for a software company and brought together after reading many different sources, including Ensmenger’s.

Dry agreed: “I don’t see how she treated the material unfairly. Outlook does a lot of this — writers synthesize research, often taken from academics or academic journals, and make it more accessible to a broader audience.” To her credit, Dry said if she had it to do over again she would have put in an attribution to Ensmenger.

Lewis’s and Dry’s views, I think, reflect in part this new age of Google and blog journalism, in which hyperlinks are like footnotes and sharing and borrowing is more a form of flattery than theft.

Lewis’s essay for Outlook was adapted from a blog post she wrote for Fog Creek’s Web site. Dry saw the post and asked Lewis to shape it into an Outlook piece.

In the original blog posting, Lewis embedded lots of links to her sources, including one to Ensmenger’s Web site. “In my mind, linking is far more powerful than a footnote or citation,” because it takes a reader to the source’s Web site, where there is a biography, a link to the book and more, Lewis said.

But links are hard to reproduce in a print version. And Dry didn’t insert any links into The Post’s online version. So in print and online, Lewis’s Outlook story has too little attribution.

This was Lewis’s first piece for a major media outlet. Veteran journalists, if they had come across Ensmenger’s Web site and book, would have interviewed him and probably quoted him. He is clearly an expert in this field.

Lewis said, “It didn’t occur to me to call him.” She said she did much of the research for the historical parts of her essay through books and got her statistics online; she didn’t talk to people. That was a mistake, one too common in this Internet age.

So, plagiarism and theft? No, but sloppy attribution, yes.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.