Assessment: Winter 2015

In my July 8, 2014 blog, I promised to check in with four self-assessment reports throughout the year, at the following times:

  • The commemorations of the American and French Revolutions (first two weeks of July)
  • The Jewish religion’s holy day, Yom Kippur – a day in which Jews are advised to take accounts of their deeds and misdeeds (beginning of October)
  • New Year’s Day (January 1st)
  • Earth Day (April 22nd)

Well – it’s time for that New Year’s report.

Over the course of the last three months, a slew of important global developments in energy transition took place, leading many of us to think that 2014 was the start of a breakthrough in the worldwide attempts to mitigate anthropogenic climate change. That doesn’t necessarily mean that such a breakthrough is imminent, but efforts are underway, and the “skeptics” subset of deniers (September 3, 2012) have increasingly fewer branches to hang their arguments on.

These developments include the recent US-China agreement (signed November 12, 2014) regarding the two countries’ specific targets and tactics to mitigate climate change, and the call Pope Francis issued to the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide to tackle the issue. Though many will consider this out of place in this list, I am also including the recent sharp drop in global energy prices, which was spearheaded by the more than 50% drop in oil and gas prices over the last six months. The common opinion right now is that the drop is good for consumers but bad for most producers and countries that heavily rely on oil to balance their budgets. Many also consider the abrupt change to be an obstacle to efforts to mitigate climate change through a global energy transition to more sustainable sources. I believe that’s an over-simplification. Next week I will discuss the matter, and will examine some of the aspects of the price drop that may be friendlier to the energy transition.

No one has specifically raised this as a concern, but since this post is part of my periodic assessment reports, I would like to use it as a self-assessment of the ethics of my style of writing.

In other words, could my style of writing for this blog be labeled as plagiarism or worse – intellectual theft?

Let’s start with a definition of plagiarism: Meriam Webster Dictionary defines plagiarism as:

The act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person : the act of plagiarizing something

Plagiarism is a big issue in academia. Everybody is vigilant against it, trying to make sure not only that our students aren’t trying to present the work of others as their own, but also that faculty cannot enhance their accomplishment portfolios by borrowing other people’s work and hoping that no one notices. Among the measures against such practices are the very sophisticated anti-plagiarism programs that can now scan literature for unaccredited pieces of work. The other side of this culture is that most of our intellectual work is constructed on the broad shoulders of our predecessors.

I myself am hyper-aware of the issue, as it pertains to my own writing and that of others. In fact, the issue was broad enough that I found myself collaborating with an English professor at my institution to write an article for a professional journal summarizing our collective experiences on the issue. I am citing here the introductory paragraph to this article, which was mostly written by the editors of the journal:

In response to a pamphlet on ways to avoid plagiarism published by their university, a science professor and an English professor reflect on their own writing practices. They also explore such topics as electronic plagiarism detectors, the history of “imitation” in literature, the Popperian formulation of the scientific method, the postmodern notion that “everything is already written,” the problem of “unconscious plagiarism,” Foucault’s “author function,” and the different assumptions about truth made in the “objective” work of science and the “subjective” work of the humanities. They reflect on some reasons why teachers’ guidelines may foster plagiarism among students, and they suggest ways to frame assignments that help students to do their own work.

I am a scientist that was trained to do scientific research. I am an old guy with a tenured university position and a Wikipedia profile (see the right column of this blog). I am also an experimentalist, so most of my work is based on experimental findings – whether they are mine, my students’ or collaborators’. No plagiarism there. However, in my long time of doing so, I have acquired enough experience and enough of a reputation to be asked to write review articles and books that are based on other people’s work. Every finding that I present is properly attributed and, when necessary, permission has been granted from the authors and/or publishers. No plagiarism there either.

I was recently invited to write a review article for a professional journal on the topic of climate change. My practice in writing any scientific paper or presenting a talk on any scientific topic is to start with the data, describe it in detail, and then discuss the ramifications.

When writing the blogs, I follow a similar routine. I focus on climate change and my objective is to try to establish a connecting line between the relevant science, my students, and members of the general public that don’t have a science background. I am using the blog in a few of my courses, and routinely welcome comments from my students. Another important objective for me is to frame my own thoughts on a range of diverse, yet interconnected issues that – without the blog – would likely stay separate in everyone else’s minds. I put my thought process in writing in part so that I can spur my readers to think and (hopefully) react/provide feedback.

As I often mention here, with more than 7 billion people in the world and growing, humans are an increasingly important part of the physical environment; discussions are under way to label the present era as Anthropocene. Climate change deals with the past, present, and an extrapolated near future. Mitigation and adaptation on scales that vary from local to global are ongoing, as are the fluctuations in politics and money flow aimed at influencing discussions on these topics.

The dispensation of information is now changing as well. Some of the information comes the old-fashioned way, through reporters who are paid by news organizations to probe, investigate and document. The role of aggregators that collect various news reports on select topics is also growing.

As a “lone wolf” with no organization and no budget, I am relying on the news infrastructure.

I have a combination of paid and free subscriptions that I follow on a daily basis. These include: the New York Times, The Economist, National Geographic, Scientific American, Science Daily, and Renewable Energy World. In addition, my computer facilities come with their own aggregators that I follow regularly. If I find something relevant that I want to use, my subscription through my college library usually allows me to download the original publication.

Following the same practice I use for my scientific papers, I don’t ask readers to agree with me blindly; I make sure to cite and wherever possible link to any reference that I use, in addition to including the relevant paragraph(s) that clarifies the story that I am trying to tell. If I need picture or graph that I regard as pertinent to the story, I often go to Google Images and use the available links. I do not ask permission to do that because my timing does not allow for the usual lag that such requests often entail.

My basic assumption is that if information is posted sans a warning against its use without permission, it’s fair game. I don’t pay anybody for the information that I post; I don’t have the resources for that and again, the time element in such transactions is prohibitive. In a sense, I am acting here as an aggregator on the particular topics that I wish to write about. I have no idea how commercial aggregators work, especially in this age of the internet, but so far I have not been warned by anybody to cease and desist.

So – following the original dictionary definition, I do not plagiarize, but my practice of direct use of data and paragraphs from original publications without permission for doing so may be questionable. I have justified these practices to myself in various ways – none of them to my complete satisfaction. It would be nice to have some feedback. Please let me know what you think!

In my last assessment, I included an update on my readership/ social media progress, so I will do so again here. Again, most of my efforts have focused on Twitter. In the last 60 days, I have gained 91 followers (bringing my total to 300). I also had 961 link clicks, 93 mentions and 78 retweets. This is all readily accessible information. On Facebook, in the same time period, my page got an additional 6,075 impressions from 1,769 users.

On my blog itself I’m happy to report that I’ve had had 1,655 visits from 902 unique computers, 700 of them new visitors. To those of you reading, I thank you and (as always) welcome your comments.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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One Response to Assessment: Winter 2015

  1. Helen says:

    Any progress is good progress. I think it was important for the Pope to attempt to get people involved in these global climate issues. I applaud you on your hyper awareness when it comes to your writing style. You provide a mix of intellect with global issues. Well done on this and on the traffic that your sites are receiving.

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