To cite or not to cite? That is the question that hounded me constantly as I transitioned from the academic world of writing into the commercial.
It is standard practice (in the humanities at least) to reference even the slightest allusion to someone else’s theory, idea or concept or you face the severe penalties and punishments of plagiarism.
In marketing, and even in non-academic article and essay writing, however, it rarely makes sense to add a footnote for every idea you’ve ever come across. In fact many thought leaders and interesting people put their opinions out there in the very hope that they will be picked up and played with by someone else.
Attribution is closely related to sourcing but it isn’t the same thing. Sourcing means getting information, writing with it and keeping track of where it came from. Attribution, at least in this context, is how you report where it came from in your writing. Sourcing is always a good thing. Attribution is more subtle.
What the professionals have to say
Earlier this year, Matthew and I picked the brains of experienced editors Matthew Rock and Joanna Higgins about all things editorial, including the questions of attribution. It was a relief to hear they didn’t have a definitive answer either:
Generally it is a pretty grey area that largely depends on a good judgement call…it is often an issue of common courtesy.
It was agreed that any direct quotes, or unique ideas that people have built a reputation or brand around should, of course be cited. Seth Godin’s purple cow; Sheryl Sandberg‘s ‘lean in’; Tim Ferriss’s 4-hour everything. Any idea, however, that has entered the general consciousness and is being talked about as part of a public discussion can be treated as such. Which leads me to Lethem.
Jonathan Lethem’s two cents
In ‘The Ecstasy of Influence’ Lethem discusses plagiarism at some length in a cleverly constructed chapter that itself was deliberately, and without attribution, plagiarising multiple writers and thinkers to create a cultural mosaic. He writes,
Any text that has infiltrated the common mind to the extent of ‘Gone with the Wind’ or ‘Lolita’ or ‘Ulysses’ inexorably joins the language of culture. A map-turned-to-landscape, it has moved to a place beyond enclosure or control. The author and their heirs should consider the subsequent parodies, refractions, quotations, and revisions an honour, or at least the price of a rare success.
A corporation that has imposed an inescapable notion – Micky Mouse, Band-Aid – on the cultural language should pay a similar price.
(Apologies for the long quotation – old habits die hard!)
So where does that leave us?
Well it all depends on who you are writing for and why. If you are writing for a client and they have provided you with some of their own collateral then it makes no sense to self-attribute. But if you are quoting from a third party review or report about your client, that needs a reference.
A customer-facing brochure doesn’t want to be littered with footnotes so try to use examples, metaphors or synecdoche to explain an idea, rather than resorting to someone else’s words.
Blogs are great because it’s easy and unobtrusive to embed a link to some source material you have used. In fact, links show you’ve really done your homework and indicates your article is worth a read.
The bottom line on attribution
We do not steal other people’s work.
That is the first thing written under ‘Attribution’ in Articulate’s writer’s guide. If you know your words or ideas are coming directly from another source, never pretend they are your own. Attribute fully. Of course, ideally you will be creating your own original content, and your own byline is all the attribution you need.
It’s the bit in between that’s tricky. You need to think about whether the attribution adds value for the reader or not, whether it helps the writing or hinders it and whether the idea in question is really part of the zeitgeist or whether a bit of research might help you remember where you heard it first.
For writers, perhaps the ultimate test is whether you would want to be attributed or not if you had come up with it in the first place (assuming you’re not an intellectual property hoarder). In this case, cite as you would be cited.