This summer, speechwriters plagiarized several lines from Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech for Melania Trump’s at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Memes immediately began circulating that depicted Melania Trump as though she were a student cheating on a test.
The day the news broke, the Modern Language Association (MLA), which promotes standards for citational practices in the humanities, posted this tweet: “Avoiding plagiarism: It’s easy with the MLA’s free online guidelines.” Widely interpreted as a subtweet, it seemed to suggest that there’s no excuse for plagiarism — information about what constitutes stealing is widely available, taught to every high schooler. In reality, though, it’s easy enough for anyone to get citation wrong. A New York Times article documenting Trump’s plagiarism was soon enough itself amended: “An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a quotation.”
Giving credit where it’s due might seem basic, but in practice, it’s easier said than done. Practices of citation are “complicated ways of making meaning,” as Kathryn Valentine puts it in her essay “Plagiarism as Literacy Practice,” and the rules are fluid.
For many writers, the process of reworking familiar ideas is inherent to the craft. From The Anxiety of Influence by Harold Bloom to Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence,” thousands of words have been devoted to the gray areas between homage, collage, and forgery. Lethem and others suggest that writers should be generous with their ideas, given that they were probably borrowed in the first place.
In the realm of popular culture, writing not only involves the use of pre-existing material but is perhaps defined by it. In Love and Theft, Eric Lott describes popular culture as a space of stolen ideas, “a stage on which appropriated goods … are transformed into culture.” As Aria Dean argues, the internet “extends and exacerbates” offline relations of appropriation, for better or for worse. The appeal of memes, for example, is that they are up for grabs, even if some makers rightfully protest this careless stance toward borrowing. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but only if accompanied by a royalty check.
Originality requires a respect for origins. Academic practices of reference achieve this by meticulously tracing lines of thought; researchers might spend weeks hunting for manuscripts at archives on foot, and they have developed commensurate systems of accreditation to document their processes. When researching online, however, even if one agrees that acknowledging sources is important, there is no consensus about if, why, and how to do so. You should definitely cite someone if you take their sentence, but what about their word, their topic, or their train of thought — their path through the online maze of content?
Citation is a method of attachment. Through reference, we stitch ourselves into networks of thought
Digital technologies make it easy to steal content — someone else’s good ideas are always a tab away — but they also produce new possibilities for tracing our thoughts, and platform interfaces both reflect and determine users’ expectations about citation. The affordance for tagging photos, for example, suggests that users care whom other people are hanging out with. Although these features come to seem like second nature, we could imagine alternative possibilities that emphasize different social values, such as intellectual integrity: for example, a field on social media profiles that tells our followers who told us about the link we’re sharing. In lieu of such functions, users devise their own citational habits: @ signs, shout-outs, HTs or a dozen other symbols that render social relations apparent.
With the increasing digitization of academic work, scholarly content now dwells alongside other genres of writing online. Academic writing thus becomes referenced using the methods offered by digital platforms, such as sharing and liking articles. Links operate much like footnotes, referring us to related content. In this diffuse world of digital expression, citations mingle on our screens with personal data like selfies, concert invitations, and blog posts. Our retweets, shares, and likes are interpreted by others as self-expression, whether or not we intend them as such. References are thus embedded in the performances of self so central to social media, and further, in the relation of ourselves to others.
Citation is, first and foremost, a method of attachment. Through reference, we stitch ourselves into networks of thought. Online, these attachments might manifest as friendship, fandom, nepotism, or, not uncommonly, as self-promotion. This makes it seem like online references are more personal than offline ones. But maybe digital practices like humble-bragging, name-dropping, and other conspicuous performances of self simply draw attention to the fact that print citations themselves have never been objective and value-neutral, just more opaque. Citation has been expressive all along, articulating desires for continuity and belonging.
Online, citations are not only expressive, but monetized. When we reference someone by sharing or retweeting their work, we are promoting it for them within an economy of ideas. Accordingly, failure to cite certain work can be thought to devalue it, both intellectually and financially. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education criticized thinkpiece writers who fail to engage with academic research. The authors claim that “championing poorly researched pop-culture writing on the internet” devalues humanities scholarship by failing to acknowledge the “history, context, and deep study” that academic experts in media and popular culture offer; some academics feel that widespread lack of respect for the labor of scholarly research is a direct cause of the budget cuts widely experienced by humanities departments.
Scholarly writing is often opposed to journalism and popular criticism, but in practice, scholars and freelance writers have more in common than not: They experience shared challenges of writing in the gig economy, such as the constant pressure to work for “exposure.” Students, journalists, and other writers all build their careers by citing others — Google Scholar tallies how many times an author’s articles are mentioned, much in the way that social media profiles count shares and likes. Citation emerges as a way of distinguishing oneself from competitors, not only in the traditional sense of networking for the job market but through the expressive capacities of reference.
When quantities of reference are incentivized by digital platforms, the line between citation and advertisement blurs. The quantity of reactions to a piece competes with its quality for importance, and demand for quantity brings a similar need for speed of writing, reading, and distribution. Headlines and bylines become worth more than the actual content to which any reference refers, and a cascade of influence often determines what sort of content is published and circulated. Content itself is significant insofar as it seems likely to get referenced, whether or not it ever gets read.
Just because someone shared your article doesn’t mean they read the whole thing, let alone understood it, but the click gets counted nonetheless. Metrics-based publishing might have certain benefits, but it’s not conducive to rigorous research or careful reading. The more rapidly ideas are encountered online, the more they are encountered as surfaces, gestures of erudition devoid of meaning. In this environment, to slow down citation is to seem to slow down thought. Slowed-down thought would give time to not merely react to ideas, but actually respond. Citation itself might actually help with rather than hinder this process.
Writers cope with detachment by latching on to timeless texts and influential figures. Citations build our senses of self and reaffirm the status quo
Although scholars are pressured by speed and funding, the profession still rewards them for interrogating ideas and taking them seriously as such, at least in theory. Academic writing becomes academic, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick suggests, “precisely when it exposes its process to future correction.” Within scholarly conversations, writers have incentive to pause and check themselves. The point of citation — ideally, at least — is to make an author’s reasoning explicit, not to display it but to observe it from a distance. Academic citations chart not only influence but the repetitions and transformations of our thoughts over time, allowing us to trace them with more clarity and discover gaps in our thinking, the bounds of our knowledge.
Perhaps our timelines online function similarly, giving shape and order to our progressions of thought. If constructing our self is an ongoing project, then intentional citation helps structure this process of self-making. Through careful citation, selves might not only be created, but reconsidered or even re-created.
Deliberately chosen conventions of reference, such as retweeting oneself, then emerge as powerful statements. More than just self-aggrandizement, retweeting one’s own tweets makes public the processes of reconsideration and reflection that were, before social media, largely invisible. To retweet oneself is to say, “I gave it some thought, and I meant what I said.” Retweeting expresses a conviction that is the essence of reference, whatever its form: In case you missed it, here it is again.
Citational attachments can help enhance thought, but they can also degrade it. When writing online, tensions emerge between accuracy, accessibility, and aesthetics, and references weigh things down. In digital publications, citations crowd screens, and even more, if citations are tokens of economic value, they can start to feel like ads that detract from “real” content. The clean lines of a personal essay, for example, seem compromised by footnotes — the pleasure of reading such an essay can come from the sense that a writer is expressing a singular experience; references remind readers that originality is a ruse, albeit a pleasant one to enjoy vicariously.
Gestures of citation in writing are often motivated more by the compulsion to perform erudition than by any desire to faithfully attribute intellectual debts. Some “highly intellectualized people,” as Phil Ford writes, may suffer from an “inability to forget anything one has read, and, even more, a deep insecurity about letting anyone think you haven’t read it.” This recalls a Portlandia sketch in which two friends frantically compare reading lists at an accelerating pace. (“Have you read this? have you read that?”) The sketch captures the anxieties of erudition, of both over-performing and doubting your own knowledge.
Among intellectuals, this often leads to situations like the comedy of manners described in Rosa Lyster’s narrative of her encounter with a “Marxist bro.” In her story, she enrages the bro by pretending she has never heard of the widely cited philosopher Slavoj Žižek, which the bro can’t accept. Her game touches on a widespread sentiment: in Lyster’s words, “the disbelief that something you care about has failed to register on the consciousness of another,” a feeling experienced not only by condescending bros. Reference might in some senses be a reparative to this sense of intellectual alienation.
Further, attachment itself can be stylish, or even satisfying. In “Quick Fix,” Naomi Skwarna writes about what it actually feels like to copy and to paste, describing the “small, good feeling” of folding another’s words into one’s own. She points to the pleasures to be found in reference, in connecting ourselves to the logic, vocabulary, and concerns of other people — and further, in seeing our troubles as unoriginal, which can make them more bearable.
If we fail to make these attachments explicit, though, we risk accusations of plagiarism, theft, appropriation. And even if we do make our sources known, we still risk seeming nepotistic, pretentious, or as though we’re oversharing. If nothing else, citations appear to interfere with any pretense to spontaneity in writing; they betray the writer’s effort.
As for whether a writer should err on the side of the plagiarist or the pedant, it depends who you ask. No news is good news, but all press is good press.
Writers cope with detachment by latching on to ideas: timeless texts and influential figures, or viral content. In this way, citations not only build our senses of self, but when accumulated, collectively reaffirm the power of the status quo. As Sara Ahmed observes, citation is a “reproductive technology,” by which practices of citation help sustain the prominence of already dominant ideologies. The books we always cite out of convenience start to seem like the only books there are.
Whether I think to quote a particular source often has less to do with integrity — of lineage, of accuracy — than with ease. The labor of tracing the diffuse sources for our ideas is its own unpaid gig, requiring skills that Ahmed calls “techniques of selection,” by which we decide who to cite and when. Should we cite Foucault every time we use the word “power,” and if him, why not Mary Wollstonecraft instead? Inevitably, I grasp for what is nearby or familiar: the book at my bedside, the quote on the tip of my tongue.
It’s naive to think that writers always cite the “best” work on a topic, rather than the most available. Writers often cite W.E.B. Du Bois when they are feeling torn between two places; his idea of “double consciousness” has been widely applied. But why not quote his contemporary Jessie Fauset instead? Fauset’s writing was considered by some critics the most important of her peers, but her blend of emotionality and erudition prevented her work from achieving widespread appeal and inclusion in anthologies. Although she is remembered for mentoring young writers, it seems unlikely she will ever be canonized like Du Bois.
I’m aware that Gilles Deleuze developed extensive theories about rhizomes, but so do ordinary people on drugs
Overwhelmed by the arbitrariness of citation, sometimes I cite whomever I please: my brother, a lover, a text from last night. Why not cite a children’s book, a chatbot, a parrot? My diary entries: a folio of field notes, interviews with myself, rigorously researched auto-ethnographies. I’m aware that Gilles Deleuze developed extensive theories about rhizomes, but so do ordinary people on drugs. If Deleuze is a more legitimate source only because more people say so, this makes him a philosophical celebrity, a conflation of popularity and prestige.
Given how ambivalent and deeply personal the act of citation online can become, it makes sense that social media is littered with disclaimers about accreditation. “Retweets aren’t endorsements,” we say, trying to protect ourselves against accusations of referential irresponsibility. Cycles of social media seem to exacerbate the dangers of acknowledging bad ideas on the way to good ones. If we enable an idea’s circulation, even with the intention of critiquing it, we might be complicit in its potential misuse.
If you retweet spam, are you spam? The fact that “spam” is subjective is the very impetus for proper citation: spam, according to whom? When did the author say that, and who were they trying to impress? As Eric Lott puts it, simulations of previous ideas are almost always “compromised by the return of unwanted meanings, gestures, and relationships.” Theories accumulate baggage as they circulate in time, extracted from their contexts and put to uses that stray from their original purpose.
For example, Roland Barthes’s famous 1967 essay “Death of the Author,” which questioned assumptions of literary criticism such as the importance of authorial intent, came at an inconvenient time. Its circulation coincided with the emergence of feminist and postcolonial studies in the academy. The essay’s argument emphasized the way historical dynamics circumscribe an author’s agency, delimiting what they write — a reasonable claim, that no one writes in a vacuum. In practice, though, this line of thinking ended up taking authority away from authors who had fought for many years to claim it; many women, for example, finally found their voices just as poststructuralists began to say voices were passé.
Whether you should cite a piece might be less important than the tone that’s taken when you do. “Punch up, cite down,” goes a common rule-of-thumb for citational practice — the point being that it’s good to be skeptical of those more powerful than us, and to encourage those below by transferring power onto them. In this way, citation functions not only to perform, promote, and recreate the self, but to disperse it.
Each retweet ripples further from, yet remains attached to, its source. Just as many of us want to be seen online, but only on our terms, so do we want our words to circulate — but only the good sentences, not the mistaken, off, or boring ones, those that damage our persona or make us seem unbecoming. As Baudrillard writes, “The worst thing when your ideas are plundered is the fact of being taken for a wreck.”
Once, when I was younger, I was incensed to discover a former crush had quoted lines from some of my writing in one of his songs, without permission and without giving me any credit. When I told my mom about it, she had no sympathy for me. “You should be flattered,” she said. And then, a little bit wistfully, “I’ve always wanted to be a muse.” What she called homage, I called arrogance.
My mom didn’t seem to understand what Alexandra Molotkow has called “the pain of having your pain appropriated,” the muse’s burden. At the time, I found relief in a quote from Baudrillard, in which he suggests that the essence of our thoughts, that which makes them ours, is inimitable. “If it can be stolen from you, the fact is that it is not yours,” he writes. Inverting that logic, there are always aspects of our thoughts that others fail to capture, even when they try.
And no matter the lengths we go to trace our sources, there’s always an influence we miss. Maybe this is the only way anything gets said at all, each of us spilling over, referring to more than we know.
In a world weighed down by reference, I find myself dreaming of a feed lacking any mentions, a page of nothing but unprecedented thoughts. The most precious sources, in my mind, are the ones most rarely cited. My mom has never been retweeted, and she has never appeared in a footnote. Baudrillard lived for nearly 80 years without ever encountering her distinctively understated strands of thought — nor has she read a word by him. At the risk of sounding nepotistic, I’m pretty sure it was his loss.