The graduate rush to write…

I attended a conference at the weekend, the UCC CACSSS Postgraduate Conference, and delivered a paper ‘Finding gold on the silver mining town of Virginia City, Nevada: The Patient Log book of Saint Louise Hospital’, It was an informal setting and a small crowd (the weather wasn’t the best) so the perfect setting for me to outline some of my thoughts and early work on the Patient Log Book. And also to publicly thank Jacquie Obos and Duke Day for helping me to access the source in the first place. Unfortunately just as the discussion got going, the moderator ended the session, apparently so we could mosey on down to the plenary… which didn’t start for thirty minutes. Very disappointing. For me, discussion time at seminars are the most important element in a conference, allowing writers to get important feedback from a neutral audience as to the early direction of work. Even if they have no familiarity with the topic the audience’s feedback is important in directing the historian on further work in the area and developing the paper into an article. It is what makes conferences unique and allows them to become something more than just a venue to publicise research to the wider community. Hopefully not just academic community.

The plenary was interesting, with different publishing houses speaking about how they require different things from authors depending on the audience that the research topic is focusing on. One of their favourite phrases was ‘de- thesis-ing’ your work. Obviously, that’s a wonderful challenge I have to look forward to, unlearning the very things I have learned during my time as a graduate student. I’m being slightly sarcastic, you never really unlearn your skills, you simply deploy different skills as you try to accommodate your work to a wider audience without compromising its academic integrity. That really will be an interesting challenge. What was really interesting at the plenary was what Piaras Mac Éinrí said afterwards. In the first response to the speeches he gave a bit of a rant that entirely livened up proceedings, he warned of the dangers of putting any of your research online. He told us how he had put a large chunk of his work online for the use of everyone, hoping that it would be of help to people, what he found however was that people said ‘Good man, very admirable’ but many people plagiarised his work; either not sourcing it or cut and pasting sections of it, claiming it as their work. He urged early academics to be intensely careful of their material, at least until they publish. It was a unsurprising and somewhat depressing statement that badly needed to be said. There has been a sincere but also naïve drive to put material online, a sort of ‘rush to write’ for postgraduates, often pushed by their graduate department. But the question is, what can you put online, what can you put out there?

I’ve heard many horror stories from other graduate students about their supervisors stealing their work, en masse, putting their name to it and walking away, leaving the graduate student with no come back. Such incidents leave the graduate student with their degree but years of research lost and little chance of getting an academic job. I am certain in the supervisor’s mind they feel they are justified of such depraved behaviour because the dissertation was a ‘collaborative’ effort and slyly see it as removing a competitor from the field. But if the graduate student has few options in reprimanding a supervisor, there is absolutely no system whereby someone can reprimand another scholar for plagiarism, unless they are published. As it becomes more difficult to become published the question becomes, how can graduates protect themselves?

I don’t have an answer. And the graduate student must make his name, even before he struggles valiantly in the ‘publish or perish’ effort to get tenure. Simply getting to assistant professor/teaching fellow in a university is a serious challenge. This lack of protection is one of the reasons why it has taken me two months to update this blog. I had a few ideas, but nothing I could put online. You get so immersed in your work as a PhD you have little time to think or work on anything else and thus, in that mindset with your thesis constantly rolling about in your skull the temptation is great to publish chunks of your work online. Thankfully I have a few semi-related ideas that I will be writing on in the next few months, so this site should keep trucking. Updates that are tangentially related to my work, not the precious semi-sacred research gold, but entirely history, coupled with the occasional contemporary post. Still the question, what to do with online history? Whatever the answer to that question, I have the feeling that graduates who choose to fight against the tide of online publishing will be about as effective as Gob from Arrested Development ‘mailing his letter’.

Another graduate student publishes research online


About Alan Noonan

Alan Noonan is currently a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress. He received his PhD in history from University College Cork, and has experience as a historical consultant and researcher. He has been awarded several fellowships including the Glucksman Government of Ireland Fellowship at New York University, a Mellon Fellowship at the Library Company in Philadelphia, and a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution at the National Museum of American History.
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