An Unresolved Issue: Evgeny Morozov, The New Yorker, and the Perils of "Highbrow Journalism"

Last week, The New Yorker published its October 13 issue. It contained an "A Critic at Large" piece by Evgeny Morozov, titled "The Planning Machine: Project Cybersyn and the Origins of the Big Data Nation."

Famed Tech Critic and History of Science Doctoral Student Evgeny Morozov

Famed Tech Critic and History of Science Doctoral Student Evgeny Morozov

Within a few days, historians were chatting. Something was wrong. Morozov's essay clearly borrowed heavily from Eden Medina's book, Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende's Chile, a book that every reader should buy right now. Medina, who received her PhD from MIT, is an associate professor of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University and also co-editor of the volume, Beyond Imported Magic: Essays on Science, Technology, and Society in Latin America

Indeed, Morozov's essay was ostensibly a review of Cybernetic Revolutionaries. Yet, Morozov only once mentioned Medina, and the mention came well into his text. To add insult to injury, citation was glancing at best: "As Eden Medina shows in 'Cybernetic Revolutionaries,' her entertaining history of Project Cybersyn, [Stafford] Beer set out to solve an acute dilemma that Allende faced." The placement of the mention as well as its wording could and did give many readers the impression that all of the ideas and the work that went into the essay were Morozov's, but they weren't. 

Eden Medina, Associate Professor at Indiana University

Eden Medina, Associate Professor at Indiana University

Historians of technology, especially experts in computer history, and other scholars were angry. They took to Twitter and other social media platforms to draw attention to the situation and shame Morozov for his behavior. On the mailing list of SIGCIS, the world's foremost organization of computer historians, members hashed out the ethical lapses of Morozov's essay. Talk on the SIGCIS list became increasingly heated. On Twitter, Meryl Alper, a PhD candidate in Communication at USC's Annenberg School, pointed out that there was an additional irony: Medina's "work highlights power imbalances in knowledge production and circulation." In the Medina-Morozov situation, we have a well-known tech critic (Morozov) and a powerful periodical (The New Yorker) borrowing heavily from a young, female professor's work without due recognition. Don't mind her. She's merely "entertaining."

At some point during the week, Janet Browne, a professor in Harvard University's History of Science department (where Morozov is currently a graduate student), wrote the executive committee of SIGCIS. She asked its leaders to remove two posts from its "blog" that alleged plagiarism on Morozov's part. Furthermore, she claimed that the issue was "now resolved," that no one had found evidence of plagiarism, and that the paucity of citations to Medina's work was fitting with the genre of "highbrow journalism."

The mailing list isn't a blog, so there was nothing to be done there, but the issue of plagiarism is a difficult and murky one. I have not alleged that Morozov plagiarized, and I have had questions for anyone who has made that claim. But plagiarism has several definitions. The most narrow definition focuses only on the direct borrowing of language. I haven't seen anyone claim that Morozov's essay did that. Yet broader definitions of plagiarism include borrowing from an author's argument and research without proper attribution, and it is understandable that some people feel that the Medina-Morozov affair is a case of plagiarism (even if we ultimately believe that such feelings are misplaced). 

An Image that Scholars Passed around on Twitter in the Context of the Medina-Morozov Affair

An Image that Scholars Passed around on Twitter in the Context of the Medina-Morozov Affair

(I've been pleased to learn that the above image on plagiarism was put out by the Poynter Institute. You can find the original post, which contains several other insights, here.)

More troubling to me is the claim that this situation is "now resolved." It isn't. (After word of Janet Browne's communication was shared with the SIGCIS membership, one historian sent out an email to the list titled, "Nothing to See Here, Please Move Along . . . ") And I do not believe that we can invent new genres, like "highbrow journalism," to wiggle our way out of traditional ethical norms around writing. It is this issue that I want to focus on in this post because it is a real problem and it has every appearance of becoming a worse one. 

At least since I entered graduate school in 2005, there has been increasing talk of and pressure for historians (and likely other academics) to write for mainstream publications and communicate via other popular media. For too long, the thinking goes, academics have been writing only for each other. It's time to reach out, to share our thinking with the general public. Blogs, Twitter, podcasts—so many tools have become a necessary part of the engaged academic's arsenal. And there is amazing stuff being done in the popular arena in the history of science and technology (HOST). NPR's Radiolab is probably the most famous case. But great pieces on HOST are also appearing at the Guardian, Slate, The Atlantic, and, yes, even The New Yorker

But there's a question: what should historians produce for pop outlets? Academic historical works take years to research and write. You can pop one or two aspects of your research and maybe even write a book for a trade press, but in the end, if you want to produce regularly for popular venues, you are going to have to draw from other sources. Under such conditions, there is going to be a temptation to lean heavily on other people's work and present syntheses thereof.

Today, so much "news," online and elsewhere, is just rewritten postings of stories that were originally written elsewhere by others. In the first episode of the new television series, Gracepoint, a journalist character complains to her boss, "All I'm doing right now is polishing press releases." We live in a world of recycling. It would be sad if historians are willing to join others in forgetting ethical standards, especially ones about others' work and thoughts. It is a trend worth resisting. 

Even before the Medina-Morozov case, we have already seen cases where pop writers have borrowed too heavily from academic historians. In September, Latif Nasser, who received his doctorate from the Harvard History of Science program, published a piece titled "Helen Keller and the Glove that Couldn't Hear" at The Atlantic. The article recounted the fascinating story of a visit at MIT between Helen Keller and Norbert Wiener, the "father of cybernetics."  It's a good story, and Nasser's telling of it is clear and enticing. The problem was that the first version of it published did not make clear that it was almost wholly a retelling of Mara Mills' essay, "On Disability and Cybernetics: Helen Keller, Norbert Wiener, and the Hearing Glove," which was published in the journal Differences. Mills also got her PhD from the Harvard History of Science program and is now an assistant professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU. As her webpage states, she is "completing a book (On the Phone: Deafness and Communication Engineering) on the significance of phonetics and deaf education to the emergence of 'communication engineer' in early twentieth-century telephony; this concept and set of practices later gave rise to information theory, digital coding, and cybernetics." (A list of her publication is here.)

One thing that separates the Mills-Nasser situation from the Medina-Morozov one, however, is that, as soon The Atlantic realized there was a problem, it responded.

It's worth pointing out, though, that some believe that there was still a real issue at hand.

The fact that Nasser and the editors of The Atlantic would use a scholar's research so cavalierly is troubling. Far more troubling is the response that so far has come from Morozov (hostility) and The New Yorker (to my knowledge, silence). 

When scholars began questioning Morozov's essay on Twitter, Morozov went on the attack. He told Nathan Ensmenger, an influential computer historian and Medina's colleague as a professor at Indiana University, "As I said, you simply don't know what you are talking about." When Ensmenger suggested that maybe he (Ensmenger) needs to learn how to read a book review, Morozov responded, "Yeah, you do, actually."

Morozov's self-defense has been that The New Yorker's reviews, including "A Critic at Large" pieces, do not mention the authors and books that they are reviewing with great frequency. (In other words, a single mention gets the job done.) As Ensmenger and others have pointed out, though, a quick survey of New Yorker reviews, including "A Critic at Large" reviews, shows frequent mentions and, more important, early mentions of the works under review.

Moreover, Morozov wrote on Twitter "The main reason to mention the author more than once in that format is if you are arguing with them." Bull. See, for instance, Louis Menand's "The De Man Case," which is also "A Critic At Large" book review, in the March 24, 2014 issue of The New Yorker. Menand mentions the author he is reviewing, Evelyn Barish, early and often and in all kinds of circumstances. For example, "From what Barish found, it seems that this was wishful thinking." (Menand would have been a good person for Morozov to look to in writing his piece since Menand writes for the magazine and is a renowned scholar, as Morozov aspires to be.)

In response to people questioning his sourcing of Medina, Morozov put up a post on his Tumblr, titled "Some notes on my cybernetic socialism essay."  He spent most of the piece describing all of the work he had done, which is utterly beside the point when it comes to proper attribution.

    Morozov posted this picture to Twitter as evidence that he had done research


Morozov posted this picture to Twitter as evidence that he had done research

Yet, Morozov also admitted in his Tumblr post, "But it's a book review essay, and I do mention the book under review."

On his blog, Morozov writes, "It's probably not obvious to people who haven't read Medina's book AND all the materials that I've read but: I'm not actually drawing on her book when I'm summarizing quite a few things in my piece." True enough. But notice that, by definition, this makes Morozov nearly the only person on the planet who can judge when he was borrowing from Medina and when he was coming up with his own material. The fact is that his telling of the story was simply too close for scholars to tell it apart from Medina's. That's a problem, a problem avoided through citation.

Other historians have also suggested that Morozov drew on works that he did not cite at all, including Andrew Pickering's The Cybernetic Brain, which recounts the correspondence between Brian Eno and Stafford Beer, something that Morozov writes about in his essay. When the historian of computing, David C. Brock, a Senior Research Fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, pushed Morozov on this point. Morozov replied, "Pickering's book was duly read when it came out and it failed to impress. Actually, I found it awful." Here, Morozov repeats a mistake that he also made in his Tumblr post, when he wrote, "Am I absolutely happy with Medina's book? No. In fact, I even have minor quibbles with it." We don't cite other authors because we agree or disagree with them but because the hard work they have done has taught us something. 

Moreover, we cite because it often becomes unclear what are our ideas and what are the ideas of those we have read. Here Morozov is not reassuring. After Morozov put up his Tumblr post explaining his essay, a fan asked him a question.

Almost every study I have ever seen shows that we tend to overestimate the accuracy of our memory (just as we overestimate our ability to "multitask"). Morozov asks concerned readers to trust his blessings. 

I have some sympathy for Nasser and Morozov. I am hard at work on my first piece of historical writing for a popular magazine. I know how hard it is to keep things tight, get the flow right, and avoid weighing the text down with academic bullshit. But I also know how my piece draws on others' research. I will cite them. If an editor would not let me give credit where credit is due, I would walk away. At least I hope I would. 

On Twitter, the historian Patrick McCray, a professor at University of California—Santa Barbara, began discussing the Medina-Morozov affair with the hashtag #faust. (About a year ago, McCray wrote an interesting blog post on Morozov, which included reflections on Morozov's relationship to academic norms.) #Faust is right. We live in a world full of intense pressures, and writers sometimes face Faustian bargains. What will we choose?

The fact remains that no matter how much archival research Evgeny Morozov did, his essay drew heavily on Eden Medina's fine and award-winning book, Cybernetic Revolutionaries, and he did not make that at all clear. 

READ THIS (AWARD-WINNING) BOOK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

READ THIS (AWARD-WINNING) BOOK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

If what I have said above makes sense—and I would be more than happy to hear that I am wrong—this situation is not resolved. Any suggestion that it is resolved might be interpreted (perhaps misinterpreted) as an attempt to quash this controversy. This situation is unresolved, but there are straightforward steps to resolve it

• Evgeny Morozov must apologize. Publicly. It doesn't matter if he didn't intend to do anything wrong. He did. His essay failed to properly acknowledge its sources. The placement and wording of his mention of Medina give readers a false impression. Morozov should make his sources clear in a written statement and confess his wrongs. His apology must be public because the damages that result from these kinds of violations go beyond the personal to the level of communities of inquiry and, ultimately, to the level of creative humanity. He also needs to drop his defensive, arrogant, and hostile attitude. Morozov's Twitter handle is "There are useful idiots. Look around." How might that worldview have contributed to this situation? Did he find Medina useful?

The New Yorker has not responded in any formal way. It must. This situation is partly a result of faulty editing at the magazine. The online version of Morozov's essay should be edited with the proper notations that changes were made because of this ethical problem. The magazine should issue an apology and correction in print. 

• Academics should begin a process of discernment about their relationship with journalism. We must consider what norms will guide us no matter where we are working. Some historians have said that they are going to teach the Medina-Morozov situation in their classes as a case of ethical violations. A few have even suggested that they will teach it as a plagiarism case. One historian claimed that we must go further and think about how we will handle our graduate students if they break such ethical codes. 

To begin with, however, we scholars must speak out when we see these kinds of violations happening. The Medina-Morozov situation scares some people. I had a friend say, maybe partly in jest, that he didn't want to speak up because he is "terrified of the Harvard Mafia." Others have said that they have no desire to upset editors at The New Yorker. (Oh, dreams of publishing in The New Yorker, you dissipate with each passing word.)

But we have to stand up for each other. If we don't, who will?