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February 11, 2013
On via, links, credit where credit is due, and the limits of patience and common sense
I figured for a change I'd focus on the minutia instead of making another futile pass at the big picture, just to change things up a little.
Hey, it's late, you're tired, whatevs.
Something that comes up all the time in my line of work (here at the laptop keyboard, not in the O.R.) is trying to decide on the fly how much effort to put into trying to give credit to whomever is responsible for material I use here.
I've given up with photos and graphics, since the effort of drilling down on Google Images to find the first appearance of an image I'm gonna use so I can credit that person or source is, in almost all cases, fruitless and teeth-gnashingly vexing — doomed to failure.
It's a trip through the looking-glass into a world of mirrored images and websites that curls back on itself and trails off into pixelated smoke.
Print leaves better tracks: words have more distinctive spoor than pixels, for whatever reason and quirk of the wiring of the human brain.
So by going back in time through the "via" at the end of or embedded in each reference to something, I can sometimes time travel to what appears to be the first mention or appearance of something.
Alas, more often than not it turns out that I was wrong and that the item appeared earlier, either unbeknownst or unacknowledged by the source I credited.
I'm OK with that, I do the best I can.
I mean, you could spend the rest of your life chasing down correct attributions to cite accurately.
I know this because last year, when Diana Brewster was working with me to put "Quantations" into Kindle format, she started uncovering far more complete citations to quotations I'd used than the brief references I'd employed in the 2002 print version.
At first I was delighted and amazed but after a couple weeks I realized that if I gave her a full head of steam to fill out the references to their — and her — potential, there would never — ever — be a Kindle version, because it would take many, many months — perhaps years — to make each reference complete.
That's time — and money — I didn't have.
So we called a halt to this fascinating exercise in literary archaeololgy and attribution and went with the book as it had originally appeared.
Somehow, I don't think the fact we chose not to expand the references is the reason my Amazon Author Rank is down in the many millions with the ebook road kill.
But I digress.
The thing is, if you choose to cite each and every appearance of something online over time, you can quickly end up with a [via] that's got 5 or 10 or 20 or even more links.
That won't work.
It takes time to create a link to a source, and it takes more time to go back and check each link to make sure it works and is accurate.
Unless you've done this yourself you can't imagine how much time and tedium is involved.
No normal person would do it.
The shortcut I've chosen to use is trying to find the first mention of something and then one or two good waystations after that en route to the present.
That omits 99% of sites that mentioned something, often among a bunch of others at around the same time.
Robert K. Merton's 1965 book (top), "On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript," is a wonderful examination of just this problem of citation and its discontents, recounted in a wonderfully droll, laconic way that delighted me but I guarantee will bore you to tears: highly not recommended.
Just tracking down its original publication date and swatting aside the forest of reprint underbrush to get back to 1965 was a miniature exercise in just the sort of frustration I alluded to at length above.
Note added at 7:29 a.m. today:
I sometimes forget how the habits ingrained by my previous life as a blood-on-the-lips tenure-seeking academic anethesiologist persist, albeit in attenuated form, in this far less demanding arena.
In 1979, during my year as a cardiorespiratory research fellow in the UCLA Department of Anesthesiology — along with the experimental work I did in the laboratory on interactions between aminophylline and general anesthetics and spending one day a week (Friday, as I recall) doing routine cases in the O.R. just to keep my hand in before returning to the O.R. full-time for my final year of clinical training — I decided to write a definitive review article on aminophylline, a bronchodilator then in wide use around the world for the treatment of asthma.
To that end, I decided that I would find and use as source material every single article ever written about the use of this drug, in any language, since the beginning of time.
It was a wonderful project, frustrating and exhilarating at the same time, which took me back to the nineteenth century German literature for the original papers describing the synthesis and use of the drug, such drilling down requiring me to use the excellent reference librarians in the UCLA Medical School Library to communicate with the Library of Congress to acquire copies of these publications.
Along the way I found papers in Japanese, Italian, and a number of other languages.
I dutifully had them all translated, such work paid for out of our departmental research fund, so that I could use the findings in my review article.
I still recall the fantastic feeling as I acquired the final few papers I needed for my comprehensive reference base, which came to about 450 papers in all, each and every one of which I cited by numbered footnote in my review.
The Xeroxed papers filled about six giant file cabinet drawers.
Faculty and residents would look at me with pity as I stood at the Xerox machine with my trolleys of bound journals, page by page copying each article.
It was exhausting, pressing down really hard so as not to cut off the margins and then turning the pages, thousands and thousands of times.
It was thrilling to read the references accompanying the final 20 or so papers and realize that I had already cited each of them: there was no work anywhere in the medical literature on aminophylline that I wasn't familiar with.
I knew more about that drug at that time than anyone on the planet.
That was a really great feeling.
Never have I felt that intellectually superior about anything since nor will I ever.
But for that one brief shining moment, I ruled.
February 11, 2013 at 12:01 AM | Permalink
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A complete record is an accomplishment in itself.
Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Feb 11, 2013 9:51:55 AM
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