The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 14, Number 4
Jul 1990

Setting Up Guidelines for Attribution Practices

by Cathy Atwood
Paper Conservator, Nebraska State Historical Society

When I read Stolen Words, by Thomas Mallon, I began to list ways in which plagiarism could occur (and could be avoided) in the field of conservation. Taking a clue from Mallon's book, I also sought the opinions of faculty members at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Elizabeth Grobsmith, who is an Associate Professor of Anthropology, said that methods for doing correct citations and avoiding plagiarism are learned in each scholar's individual field. The social scientist, biologist, or literary critic learns as a student how to give proper credit. Credit should be given for ideas, even if they are not specifically quoted. The only exception to this rule would be if the idea is in the public domain. (In this context, "public domain" refers to information which everyone knows. For instance, you would not have to give a source for the statement that paper with a pH of three is usually brittle.) Grobsmith also pointed out that, in certain cases, credit is due to an agency, rather than to an individual.

Two aspects of Grobsmith's comments have been important in my ruminations on the topic of credit versus plagiarism. The first is that the methods of scholarship are learned in each particular discipline. So conservators, with their multi-faceted backgrounds, need to implement their own training and guidelines. And the question of what ideas are already in the public domain would be important when talking about conservation techniques and theories.

In December of 1989, I also spoke with Frederick Link, Professor of English at the sane university. He mentioned some of the basic rules of attribution: If a published work uses a direct quote, or a paraphrase, or an idea from another person, the source must be cited. It is better to over-cite than under-cite. Credit must also be given when doing a talk, although it would take a different form than published citations.

Let me bring forward a third source, before presenting my own thoughts. The guidebook which I keep at home is A Handbook for Scholars, by Mary-Claire van Leunen. On page 10 of the 1978 edition she says, "Citation is the courtesy of scholars. In the simplest way, the attribution says thank you to the source." This handbook, like many others which are used to prepare manuscripts for publication, has chapters on the correct style for quotations and citations. Reading such a manual is one way to discover what ideas, paraphrases, and allusions should be acknowledged. (Even if you acknowledge a source, there may be a limit on how much of another's material can be used without the permission of the copyright holder. This might be a legal question, not just a matter of ethics.)

The Handbook for Scholars (page 9) explains that providing a citation is a service, as well as a courtesy.

For the reader, citation opens the door to further information and to independent judgment. He can find more about your topic, fill in the background, catch up on what he's mussed. He can also judge for himself the use you've put your sources to.

So--in what areas should conservators strive to give credit and avoid plagiarism? The following possibilities are offered, and your response is invited.


The AIC Journal and Studies in Conservation are models for how to do citations for conservation literature. But when are acknowledgements necessary? Conservation articles can cover science, treatment techniques, tools, and diverse other subjects. We must remember that there are sources of inspiration to be noted, as well as previous research and methodology to cite.

In some cases, we may not know the source of tools and techniques. It might be reasonable to say, "I learned this method (or this modification of a method) from Ms. Doe."

Articles or books written for the general public may not be as detailed as publications for conservators. Still, citations are a necessity and a service.


It may seem awkward or pedantic to provide citations in a talk. Yet audiences of conservators will expect this information. General audiences will find citations beneficial, too. They may not make a note of the source you cite, but they will realize that there is authority for your comments. In addition, mention of conservation research, or of the work or opposing views of colleagues, can inform the audience that conservation is a profession.


Handouts are written by individuals and by groups, and they have been perpetually copied to provide reference material. I believe that we should get permission from the author or the institution before photocopying any such leaflets for distribution. Should we also be stamping or typing on these copies that they were "reproduced with the permission of..."?

New leaflets could include a statement such as: "Reproduction of this handout is permitted. This was written in December 1989; an updated version may have been written since then." (Could anyone wrongly interpret this to mean that they can reproduce the text, and insert their own name as author?


Sometimes it is convenient to use images or analogies developed by others in order to describe an unfamiliar topic to a student or other audience. In such a case, the originator of that image should be acknowledged.


There is a pitfall which is faced in all areas of endeavor, and conservators are not exempt from the trap. We may forget the source of an idea, and come to think of it as our own device, or our own words. Human frailty mast be forgiven. And it is easy to forgive, as long as there is no pattern of outrageous deception.

It is difficult to do proper acknowledgements. It requires alertness and memory, which can be supplemented by a sympathetic proofreader and good notetaking. We may find that too much of early conservation does not have documented history, and that it is not possible to credit the originator of a treatment or a tool. Even so, I hope that conservators can address this topic, and formulate some guidelines. We should plan on acknowledging the work of others (and our own work) instead of endorsing a tradition of plagiarism.

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