This post summarises the talk I gave at ResearchED, a conference held at Dulwich College concerned with Educational Research. My thanks go to Tom Bennett for allowing me to speak.
Due to the nature of the content, citation is given in a separate document, open for comments, the link for which is at the foot of the page. This is my longest ever post, so pop the kettle on.
I have been fascinated by the growth of sharing online in recent years, if a little concerned at the ease at which things were shared, coupled with what I perceived to be a decline in copyright (protection of creative items) and provenance (details of where ideas came from). This blogpost shares my journey into the research behind my curiosity.
The Ben Commandments
When Dr Ben Goldacre published his Government sponsored call to arms for more RCTs in schools, I eagerly downloaded the paper and read it with enthusiasm. He argued well for a need to explore ideas and concepts, using salient medical analogies and examples of medical research to support his argument. When I got to the end, I was however dismayed to see that he’d not given any of his sources. I puzzled over my feelings about this for more than a healthy time, and finally decided I felt disappointed; referring to examples that he then omitted to cite to me felt like he had devalued his argument slightly. It is not like I would have looked any of them up, but given his passion for the need for research, the fact he had not formally acknowledged these made his argument slightly weaker. They were in fact, hidden away in another paper, referenced in passing, at the beginning.
This is however not uncommon. Even with cited data, information can be falsified, then passed on without any direct claim to the truth. Take for example the graph below:
It is so accurate as to be believable, right? In 2006, Will Thalheimer looked at this graph, and doubting it, explored its provenance. He did this simply by contacting the authors indicated, who denied their connection with it. You can read his fascinating post about this here. When I emailed him about it, he explained that seven years on, it was still his most popular blogpost.
It looks trusting, doesn’t it, and given our ease of sharing, it would take a thorough and keen eye to do what Will did and actually investigate the basis for the graph.
Inspired, I tried the same myself. For years, I had glimpsed graphs and data about the 7% rule, which states that when someone is talking, the words only account for 7% of the message overall, the other 93% being taken up by voice tonality and body language. Below is a classic example of this graph.
It took around two minutes of digging, using the brilliant research tool “Google” to find that this concept had been skewed beyond its origins. While the figures are correct, how this as subsequently been interpreted is wholly wrong. This article explains more effectively than I could how the original research findings have been corrupted, both through simplification of the message, and by sharing.
A simple search on Google Images, or searching on Twitter for “7% rule” demonstrates that this inaccurate interpretation is alive and kicking. Each time we share, we extend the false footfall of mistruth.
This though is not confined to learning concepts. Take William Blake’s famous “two sunflowers” poem, an extract of which you can (not) read below (due to copyright).
It is classic William Blake, isn’t it? The intonation, the rhyme, subject and aspiration are all delightfully matched to Blake, which is all the more troubling since Blake would have been unlikely to use an Americanism such as ‘traveling’ 200 years ago. Nancy Willard, an American Poet, would though, as she is the author of the poem (first published in 1981). Through simple and innocent reprinting of this ode to Blake, the poem was misappropriated as an original, and bounded on, now seemingly in the Public Domain (since in theory, the author had been dead for 186 years). In 2013, when the Library Spider published their blog exposé of this authorial adaptation, the poem could be found online, on county websites, within TES Resources, and published in books. Give a teacher the task of finding a Blake worksheet and it may well appear. Growth in sharing has strengthened trust while diminishing the desire to assert provenance.
Copyright for Destruction
To say the laws governing Copyright are complex can be an understatement. In 2011, Maggie Ramage from the Institute of Trademark Attorneys went on record as saying she was amazed that Ronseal had trademarked “it does exactly what it says on the tin,” given that it was such an everyday phrase. Sadly, she had missed that it had been created and written in 1994 specifically for Ronseal, but had become so common, it had entered everyday parlance. This is surely the joy of any marketer (as Specsavers, Ronseal or Hoover would no doubt attest), but also goes some way to explaining the challenges. If the attorneys governing copyright get things wrong, surely we can be excused?
Actually, no, we can’t. The legal aspect of copyright, whilst complex, is actually quite clear it its intentions – to protect the rights of the original creator of a ‘work’ – note, not an idea. Here are the facts in brief:
- Literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works = artist death + 70 year
- Sound Recordings and broadcasts = broadcast year +50 years
This in the UK is covered by Civil Law. Whereas in criminal law you are innocent until proven guilty, in Civil Law, it is the reverse.
Fair use allows you to use copyright-protected items in certain ways, and this is your only protection an a challenge to a civil law suit against you. Fair use is broadly covered by these points:
- Source of quote, with author, must be stated
- Additional licences may be required
- For private study or news use
- Excerpts and quotations allowed
Put really simply, if you use someone else’s picture, text, song or work outside of fair use, you are breaking the law. That includes images without credit or permission found to illustrate your blogpost via a quick search on Google Images. In fact, there is a market spawning which allows image libraries to seek out offenders, then charge them a fine, seemingly based on charging you the original cost of hiring the image and multiplying this several times.
Wikipedia’s definition of Copyright seems to extend to cover ideas too, but I would challenge this, since UK copyright laws do not protect ideas. Concepts can be patented, logos, phrases and slogans can be trademarked, but ideas are copyright-free. This is not to say an idea can’t have an owner, more that the owner has no legal protection/comeback, should anyone take their idea. This is where provenance comes into play.
Put simply, provenance is the documentation trail of an idea. It allows the end user to trace back the source, which I think adds an awful lot of value to an idea, as well as giving the ‘explorer’ a more effective context for understanding.
I was first introduced to provenance by my brother who is an Executive Catering Manager. He introduced me to Steve the butcher, whose provenance is second to none – you could call him an artisan butcher, as he runs a farm too. His steaks are melt-in-the-mouth delicious, and the level of detail he can give you is extraordinary. He is able to tell you when the cow visited the abbotoir, how long it has been hung for, which field it lived in, even the food it ate. Steve knows his meat.
Provenance of ideas is similar. If we take an idea and change it, it is simply a moral and common courtesy to acknowledge, where possible, where that idea originated from. This is especially true in Education, where context, validity and justification are becoming increasingly important. Here are my top three reasons for the importance of provenance though:
Intact – indicating where an idea came from allows you to examine the idea intact, as well as seeing what it has become. Ideas are fluid, and change is agile, but if we can’t see the source, we might be trying to solve problems that have already been solved. Take for example Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black’s AfL concept – published, celebrated, simplified and then skewed so much that Dylan had to publicly identify that the original concept had been corrupted. This was a case where provenance was clear and available, yet many had not even troubled to visit the source itself – the paper, ‘Inside the Black Box.’ (2001) how many other ideas float around education where the provenance has been omitted?
Undiluted – if a core idea becomes diluted, it can lose integrity. Ewan McIntosh spoke to me in a phone interview for this article about the dilution of ideas being akin to being ‘beaten with a mediocre stick.’ Ewan’s involvement in the Teachmeet movement is well-known, which makes any debate about the future of Teachmeets easy to undilute (or concentrate) into the original purpose of the idea. Sadly, for lesser ideas, provenance is applied less. As Ewan said, ‘I’m not asking for money, or my name in lights, but an acknowledgement of the source is good manners, and and it’s worst, changing an idea without acknowledging its provenance damages a product’s integrity’ – ideas are very easy to misinterpret if you can’t see the journey they have travelled.
Traceable – perhaps least important but most interestingly (at least to me) is to watch the evolution of an idea over time. I love seeing this happen; what is added which creates, improves or enhances the value of an idea. It is in the fleshing out of an idea what helps us sometimes connect the dots, build our own ideas in, and make the idea agile to our own needs.
The difficulty with ideas is that you can get them from everywhere – I get inspired from all sorts of things, places, people, media. It is sometimes not possible to actively demonstrate where your idea came from itself. In 1903, the writer Mark Twain wrote to Helen Keller, who had been acquitted 11 years earlier of plagiarising another author’s story. Here is a quote from that letter:
The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction.
I love that! Admitting that all ideas are essentially plagarised gives a liberating freedom to admit that nothing is original but simply cobbled together from other concepts, thoughts and ideas. To be able to demonstrate our influences however helps to keep provenance alive.
A multitude of magpies
It is very easy to blame Social Media. Seemingly everything has a ‘Share’ button on it now; I sometimes look for one on my youngest son when he wakes in the middle of the night!
The ability to share both allows ideas and materials (text, images, media) to be enjoyed by more people, more quickly. With this comes a responsibility, and this is firmly placed on the end user. It is easy to blame Social Media tools for the growth in copyright infringement and dearth of provenance, but for two things; firstly, by their very nature, the tools have at least one-level provenance baked in. If you retweet something, it automatically includes the source. It is a conscious decision by the user if they decide to exclude this source. Social media firms cannot also control the legitimacy of content (such as whether a quotation is actually genuine or not) or of images; this lies an the lap of the user, as they drag a file from their desktop into the ‘upload’ tray.
The main social media sites are also very clear whose responsibility copyright lies with – you. Twitter states:
Twitter respects the intellectual property rights of others and expects users of the Services to do the same.
With the ease of sharing comes the responsibility of fact-checking. Yes, it takes timer, but it legitimises your work, as well as recognising the good work of others.
One very common image that floats around in many incantations is the Albert Einstein ‘fish tree’ one. It speaks to our ideallistic Educational heart – don’t judge everyone by one standard (laws, driving test examinations, tax credits, custom and borders, GMT, UK Weights and Measures and the multitude of one-size-fits-all standard notwithstanding ). Here it is below:
Why wouldn’t you like this? The man is a shorthand for successful genius, it feels like a legitimate thing he might say, and it is incredibly simple to understand immediately!
The trouble is, there is no evidence that h ever said it, and there is a species of fish which can climb trees. Sorry. (Don’t forget to save the Blutack when you take the poster down tomorrow).
We fall into confirmation bias sometimes when sharing – it seems to be just right, we want it to be true, heck we’ve seen it elsewhere, it MUST be genuine, right? The same goes for the ‘Your Country Needs You’ poster – an emblem for war propagandists everywhere – until it was recently discovered that it was hardly even used.
That’s the trouble – I don’t really have one. I have a few ways that can help though. I’ve used a simple acronym to help guide my own thoughts too!
Teaching – We can teach children these skills. Yes, children. It is possible, and right, using Google’s excellent ‘Research’ tool to allow children to write something, and cite their sources with ease. I’ve had eight year olds do this, and understand the principles of why they are doing this too (believe, you have not heard person scorned by plagiarism until you’ve heard a child say ‘she copied me’ ). Using tools such as the excellent Creative Commons website and sites such as Compfight all become aides.
Educate – This is different; educating someone is, in this sense at least, explaining the ‘why’, rather than the ‘how’. By explaining the how, you can help to fill the space in our habits that Charles Duhigg identifies. His model of CUE ROUTINE REWARD is an excellent way of retraining bad habits. People will always want images – introduce a legitimate resource into their habits, and their reward will remain the same.
Ask – We need to challenge more often. We need to ask ourselves about the provenance about the thing we are about to share before we press that glorious share button. We need to ask others. This can be done in an informal, friendly way, and if enough of us do this, it will have a greater impact on respect of ideas and Works. In a Twitter sense, I do this by simply saying ‘Like it! Source?’ – it is either ignored (the pang of conscience perhaps?), or the digital equivalent of ‘scrabbling around’ occurs with an answer arriving a few minutes later. Either way, calm is restored in my (petty) little mind.
Model – We must cite our sources more. I personally find them fascinating, for the reasons above, but I also think we can do this with our inspirations too. If we use ‘Further Reading’ as an indication of which direction to take forward, why not use ‘Previous Reading’ as a guiding point for where ideas and thoughts came from? I’m attempting this myself, by leaving my sources as a big fat Open Citation. You are more than welcome to look at it, add to it or comment on it. I promise to respond!
Phew! Glad I’ve got that off my chest. Normal light pedagogical service will resume shortly.
Blogpost Images – Halt: Bridget AMES via Compfight Censored: .mw via Compfight