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23 April 2007

Imitation and the academy

Imitation is flattery, but also proof of a system which has lost its way.

We have noted an increasing proliferation of imitation items circulating within select smaller settings of the intelligence studies academia, which by some strange coincidence repeatedly also references the more rarefied material we have set forth or cited, usually within days of our initial postings. Such coincidences become increasingly suspect over time.

It is not that we are displeased that it appears that we are so profoundly influencing the evolution of the debate. We are however saddened that there appears to be so little original thought emerging out of institutions which should be thought leaders in this field, yet for some reason languish without insight or innovation to call their own, reduced to a genteel form of plagiarism that seeks to pass off others ongoing research efforts as their own.

We are also concerned that this dynamic ill equips students to meet respected academic and professional intelligence standards for collaboration and debate. In the online medium of the blogsphere, one of the more important elements which has evolved to enable a more dynamic and interesting collective conversation has been the “hat tip” reference to origins of material passed from one context to another. In a way, this modern practice very closely resembles the Islamic tradition of isnad utilized in oral repetition of narratives across generations of multiple speakers. It is, in our view, vital to the essence of the online scholarly debate – especially when in so many instances the entirety of discussions on particular issues may only be grasped by walking the chain of attribution back across time and individual contributions.

Not entirely without reason, the application of isnad type citation has been growing within the intelligence community – particularly as coordination processes and distributed collaboration becomes more and more common within many entities. This is partly a response to increased emphasis on the traceability of analytical judgments, and of data supporting those judgments, which has occurred given the public discussion surrounding the declassified version of the 2002 Iraq NIE and related Senate inquiries. Also, not coincidentally, as an aspect of rigor it is fundamentally similar to key basic analytic tradecraft in both HUMINT and COMINT fields, and therefore tends to be ingrained in professionals with experience in those disciplines to the point that it is transferred to more academic discussions almost without conscious volition. It is further in no small measure the direct result of influences from the blogsphere, in both its open and community iterations, as the availability of robust search capabilities coupled with small worlds social networks virtually ensures the visibility of any “me too” behaviors.

The intelligence community’s debate over new methods of citation may have changed with the technology, but frankly has not altered in its poles since the earliest days of analytic scholarship, as can be seen in earlier works on the subject.

Thankfully, our other more prominent blogging colleagues have always been kind in their attribution, for which we are grateful; and hope that we have also likewise been scrupulous in providing our source references for all to examine. We understand it may be entirely galling to many academics - steeped in a tradition which surrounds them with young minds with a tendency towards hero-worship - to acknowledge the anonymous mutterings of those they have never met at conferences, or recognized as published in the usual journals – particularly when the torch of authorship is passed so often between contributors, or temporarily suspended without any public explanation or acknowledgement for reasons entirely related to the unique factors of our collective profession. But it speaks to the heart of scholarly integrity, and to the disconnects between current professional practices and what passes for the same in a regrettable number of academic circles.

We are starkly reminded of the example of a particular British professor at one American institution who a number of years back attempted to pass himself off as a so-called expert in intelligence matters, but whose plagiarism and repeatedly demonstrated incompetence - before his frankly too quiet, and too long delayed dismissal - remains legendary in the field, and an enduring black mark for what was an otherwise fine organization. While the recently noted behaviors by other academics has not risen to anywhere near such an egregious level, the observed psychological factors bear striking and troubling similarity to early case indicators.

For those whose only recognition comes from the community of fellow thinkers, this behavior is particularly galling. The online blogsphere is an economy of attention, and while some may profit financially, this has never been our intention (or even something appropriate given our small skunkwork’s ever-changing collective roles and responsibilities.) This is rather an effort driven largely by personal interest, and what feedback we are given in other forums is the sole distinction between a semi-private “analysts’ coffee” between colleagues, and a worthwhile attempt to respond to Sherman Kent’s original call – albeit in a more informal manner than the gentleman could have conceived given the technology (and timelines) of his day. We certainly feel our humble effort falls well within the bounds of the latter category, and feedback from our more intellectually honest colleagues has validated time and again the return on our collective investment of time and energy in this effort. For whether their comments have been complimentary or critical, the debate advances based on common contributions and shared conversation for which we remain grateful.

Let us hope that our other colleagues will learn soon to display a higher standard of rigor, in order to set an unimpeachable example for the next generation of officers and analysts.

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