Wednesday, September 21, 2005

What do you do when.... read something that is almost exactly, or exactly, one of your key theses in your dissertation in a book that has already been published? AAAAAUUUGGHH!! I hate it! I know no idea is completely original, but it sucks when you've finally come up with something that you think is a fresh take on something, and then there it is already. I have one committee member that says, hey, you're gonna say something someone has already said before, but you'll say it different. My question is, what do I do about this book? It was a book I was only skimming through quickly to put in as an example of a book on its subject matter in a footnote. Then I find it says something that even my advisor was saying was going to be my original take on a theory in my field. And OK...maybe I put it differently, and this other author says it more poetically than I ever could, but if I quote the book it looks like I got the idea from him, but I didn't. Do I just pretend I never saw that book? This problem is worse when it happens to be a crucial book in your field (this one isn't) which you have to have read. It's also happened to me that I haven't read a key book I should have read, and there is the person making the same claim I was going to make and I don't find out until it's too late.
This happens to me when making films too...often I've had an idea, and then watched a film that does something very similar. I know from my own experience watching other films that if film A is before film B and they both have a similar plot twist or technical device or whatever, I assume one inspired the other.
I guess it's kind of pathetic to be like "hey, I thought of this on my own!" Who cares anyway, right? But for practical purposes, in a dissertation...I'm not going to drop my idea just because someone else had it too, but how can I keep it mine without someone assuming I "stole" the idea?


Blogger Francesca said...

First of all, I feel for you, thinking you had an original thought and then finding it somewhere else! Argh!

At any rate, I think it would be disingenuous for you not to mention the book. I think you can say something like your idea was actually developed independently of this book. Some jerks will choose not to believe you, but if you use the right phrasing, you will convince people that it was an idea you had before reading it elsewhere.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Porkorama said...

I guess I don't really care if someone else had the idea that much in itself--only in so far as having to "prove" myself with the dissertation. In any case, I guess I state it in a different way, and in a completely different context subject-wise (it's a theoretical thing).
The thing is, I would feel so petty going "oh, yeah, but I had this idea separately...really." *sigh* I wish I just hadn't seen the book. This happens to me a lot! It makes sense, since if I came up with something it's likely someone else would too. At least what I am proposing is counter to the general current. That one book is the only one I've found in the hundreds of books and articles I've looked at that says the same thing I do.
I guess what I'll do is mention in a footnote that I recently came by the book, and tell the truth, that the author puts a very similar idea into much more poetic words than I could and that it is worth checking out.

12:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is why you stop reading when you start writing. just stop... it makes it easy.

6:09 PM  
Blogger Camicao said...

You need to talk to your advisor to get help understanding the ways in which your work is different and separate so that you can play that up in your work. Regardless of who thought of the idea first, the person who publishes it first pretty much owns the credit to it and professionalism demands you respect that, even when you know that you came up with the idea on your own. You have to face this head on. It stinks. This almost happened with my diss, but luckily, the other scholar had a different focus and methodology so I was able to weasel my way through. Good luck. I feel for you. This is what all dissertation writers dread.

11:25 PM  
Blogger Porkorama said...

As one of my diss advisors said, I'll say the same thing but I'll say it different. We can't pretend to complete originality. I can't even say I own my ideas...they really just come to me from the ether. It's just the stress of grad school performance anxiety that makes me freak about about these things!
In any case, I was making a mountain out of a molehill.... The passage I found in that book, it was a paragraph long, and the book itself really has nothing to do with what I'm writing about, except that it's marginally in the same field. I do think I will point out that the book has a very poetic way of stating something similar to the point I'm trying to make.

10:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have to acknowledge it, no question about it. You have two options here. One (the better one) would be to figure out how your idea differs from the other author's and then tackle it head on. In fact, this usually will force you to think more about your own stuff and you will end up making a genuine advance. The other way is to say in a footnote something like 'For a similar point in blah-blah context, see blah-blah.' You cannot claim originality because the author who first publishes it owns the credit. It has probably happened to everyone at least once... I actually had someone email me that I had neglected to cite an unrelated paper of his (that I had not seen) because he sort of had a similar idea in a footnote, and that was for a working paper I had posted on my website. Sigh... so I tackled it head on: cited him, credited him, and then explained in painstaking detail why my approach was better.

9:28 PM  
Blogger Porkorama said...

Anonymous...I like your approach, particularly how tackling something head on can make you push further. But shouldn't we also realize that there is no such thing as "original thought," and that we can't possibly account for everything that has ever been written on a given subject? At least I'm encountering that tendency is to want to "answer" everyone, but you have to draw the line at some point, choose your sources, choose who you are going to engage, etc. I guess if someone approaches you like that person did and shoves something in your face you have to acknowledge it. Plus, you want to make sure you cover at least the "big names" in your field since the primary purpose of the dissertation (besides making you suffer, of course) is proving your competence. But so what if someone else said something similar...if you didn't know it, why can't you "own" your idea and express it? It's never going to be identical anyway. The capitalist system has encouraged us to view ideas as intellectual property. You publish an idea and therefore you have patented it. It wasn't always that way. I'm not suggesting plagiarism...I'm suggesting we be more open to the idea that our ideas are complex products of an incredible amount of influences, all of which it is impossible to name.

10:33 PM  
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