“Please Read the Article”? Please Cite Women Academics.

I’m not an expert on cyber warfare, nor do I play one on TV—or on Twitter for that matter.

I have, though, published academic research about the cultural claims to legitimacy that policymakers have historically used when responding to perceived threats of youth hackers—work, I should note, that popular journalists have covered and properly attributed here and here.  And as a Faculty Associate with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University, I’m well aware of thoughtful scholarship on how popular culture and technology policy directly and indirectly shape one another.

In doing that historical work on youth hackers, I was thankful for the heavy lifting done by communication scholar Stephanie Ricker Schulte in her 2008 article “‘The WarGames Scenario:’ Regulating Teenagers and Teenaged Technology (1980-1984)” in Television & New Media, as well as her 2013 book Cached: Decoding the Internet in Global Popular Culture, published by NYU Press.  Schulte argues that the 1983 movie WarGames was more than just fun cinematic fare and a box office smash; it also had serious cultural implications for U.S. internet policy during the Reagan administration.  Schulte makes the claim in both the article and her book that WarGames made certain images of cyberwarfare more salient and set the stage for particular solutions to alleged internet security threats.  For her work, Schulte received coverage in press outlets such as CNET, won the Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ 2010 Dissertation Award, and garnered rave reviews in top communication journals.

I say all this to preface the fact that on the morning of February 20, when I read a New York Times article that UVA media scholar (and think piece aggregator extraordinaire) Siva Vaidhyanathan had posted to Facebook, entitled “‘WarGames’ and Cybersecurity’s Debt to a Hollywood Hack,” I was alarmed both by the author Fred Kaplan’s claims to covering entirely new ground on the topic—that ground being WarGames’ cultural influence on U.S. internet policy—and by the glaring omission (at least, glaring to internet and society scholars) of Schulte’s work.

I went to Twitter to bring this oversight to Kaplan’s attention, and also to alert fellow scholars who’ve been down this road before.  Loose recycling of academic research into trade books and pop journalism—and the tendency for the academics in question to be women and for the journalists to be men—is a serious and systemic problem with professional and political implications.  I wrote about the issue in 2014 when tech journalist Evgeny Morozov penned a New Yorker article on Chile’s cybernetic system under Salvador Allende that heavily minimized the contributions of Indiana University professor Eden Medina and her award-winning MIT Press book Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile.  (Professor Lee Vinsel also helped here and here to describe Morozov’s failings, as well as document additional cases of similar behavior by other journalists.)  I couldn’t help but read Kaplan’s piece without wincing—keeping in mind both Schulte’s arguments and this troubling trend of rendering invisible women’s academic labor, specifically critical research about male-dominated fields like computing and gaming.

In response, Kaplan chastised me to “Please read the article, not just the headline”— a response I found belittling, an attempt to undermine my critical literacy skills and dismiss the validity of my objection to the piece.  In other tweets, Kaplan claimed “my book has nothing to do with hers (which I hadn’t heard of till now).”  Not having heard of Schulte’s book says more about Kaplan though, and his failure to do his research before publishing a piece in the Gray Lady, than about the significance of Schulte’s own.  I also never said, as Kaplan insinuated, that he was “sexist” and never once used the term “plagiarism.”  Those kinds of responses quickly foreclose meaningful engagement with difficult issues like the public attribution of ideas online.  But when someone claims that a book is “completely different” from their own, without having actually read said book, I can’t help but find such an answer, well, incomplete.

To repeat, my read of Kaplan’s thesis in his NYT article is that WarGames was culturally influential to the Reagan administration’s cybersecurity policy.  Why would I identify that as Kaplan’s primary claim, besides a cursory glance at the headline?  The lede paragraph of the article reads, “Movies rarely influence public policy, but Washington’s policies on cyberattacks, computer surveillance and the possibility of cyberwarfare were directly influenced by the 1983 box-office hit ‘WarGames.’”  In the conclusion, Kaplan restates the idea that WarGames “sparked the first public controversy over the tensions between security and privacy on the Internet, as well as the first public power struggle about the subject between the N.S.A. and Congress — a debate and a struggle that persist today.”  Even the subtitle on the WarGames film still that accompanies the article reads, “The film led to the nation’s first directive about computer security.”  Kaplan may be the first person to write on the topic this week (a week with heightened anxieties about cybersecurity due to tensions between Apple and the FBI over unlocking the iPhone of the deceased San Bernardino shooter), but timeliness should not be conflated with novelty.

One could go deeper, reading Kaplan and Schulte’s work side-by-side.  For example, Kaplan writes that in 1983, “The first laptop computers had barely hit the market; public Internet providers wouldn’t exist for another few years.  Yet [national security decision directive] NSDD-145 warned that these new machines—which government agencies and high-tech industries had started buying at a rapid clip—were ‘highly susceptible to interception.’”  Schulte similarly frames her story in relation to the general populace’s experiences, or lack thereof, with personal computers and the internet at time.  She writes on p. 489 of her Television and New Media article that, “Although home computer ownership surged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, modem use did not.  As a result, in the early 1980s most Americans learned about the internet through popular culture, like WarGames, and news media outlets, before they experienced it personally.”

When a thoroughly researched and well publicized treatment of a narrow topic exists, I believe that anyone writing on the topic—be it a tech journalist or a historian of technology— is obligated to acknowledge the existence of that source.  (As a helpful reference, MIT student J. Nathan Matias has written a blog post on acknowledging other scholars’ work for a public audience, and worked with Atlantic staff writer Adrienne LaFrance to analyze gender bias in tech reporting too.)  In a highly visible forum like the New York Times or the New Yorker, where one stands to financially profit from plugs for an upcoming mass-market book (as is the case with Kaplan), supplementation of prior work should be made transparent for readers, who are unlikely to come across academic press titles like Schulte’s while mulling about the airport book kiosk.  Even if Kaplan’s own primary sources led him in the same direction as Schulte, she scooped him.  And in journalism, if you’ve been scooped, you give proper credit to the original reporter.  Yet it’s usually well-established men with wide readerships and banked up cultural capital who stand to benefit the most from ambiguous journalistic standards.

In short, the next time I get implored by a male journalist to “please read the article,” I will kindly suggest please citing the work of women whose fascinating and creative scholarship clearly precedes them.


Considering the overall gender problems of “WarGames,” with Ally Sheedy mainly resigned in the movie to looking over Matthew Broderick’s shoulder as he types on the computer (as pictured here), this photo is particularly apt for a discussion of systemic gender bias in source referencing.




29 responses to ““Please Read the Article”? Please Cite Women Academics.

  1. Pingback: meta-academic notes | allonan

  2. Thank you Dr. Alper. Your piece, and frankly this whole comment thread, is fascinating. What I find most interesting is that the author might have responded with a humble apology–admitting to the oversight and thanking you for informing him of Schulte’s work, which he had not come across in his own research. Instead he chose to be defensive and hostile–this is the part that most vividly exposes the toxic gender dynamics at play (even more so than the original article, in my view).

  3. Excellent piece Prof. Alper. Clear, well argued, and on point. All power to you.

  4. Meryl, this is such a wonderful, brave post. Thank you for using it not only to point out the problem but also to share the work of Schulte which I hadn’t encountered until now.

    I sympathise to some extent with Fred Kaplan – the fact that he didn’t read Schulte’s work could be either the result of him actively ignoring academic scholarship by women or of him actively ignoring all scholarship and it sounds like it probably the latter. That’s not to say that it could also be both: the systemic nature of this problem means that many of us (including the victims) are also perpetrators of this problem but it also means that people often feel victimised when they’re singled out.

    What I disagree with are the claims being made by him about how journalism and journalists work. Good journalism is/should be characterised by a level of humility and transparency that isn’t apparent here. The American Press Institute, for example (https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/journalism-essentials/verification-accuracy/journalism-discipline-verification/) talks about how the discipline of verification is founded on the concepts of transparency, humility, and originality:

    “Transparency means show your work so readers can decide for themselves why they should believe it.
    – Don’t allow your audience to be deceived by acts of omission — tell them as much as you can about the story they are reading.
    – Tell the audience what you know and what you don’t know. Never imply that you have more knowledge than you actually do.
    – Tell the audience who your sources are, how they are in a position to know something, and what their potential biases might be.
    – Transparency signals the journalist’s respect for the audience. It allows the audience to judge the validity of the information, the process by which it was secured and the motives and biases of the journalist providing it.”

    It’s difficult not to lash out when we’re accused (albeit indirectly) of something (e.g. sexism) we disagree with so vehemently, as I’m sure Kaplan does, but some humility would be good here.

  5. I don’t know anything about the specific topic, and certainly would not deny the marginalization of women academics in many contexts. But honestly, speaking as a journalist, this echoes a situation I have encountered time and again, in which academic experts in a domain have a greatly different viewpoint about what might be relevant to a journalistic article than do journalists – and it’s not because anybody on either side of the dispute is being dishonest or dishonorable. When you are extremely deeply involved in a knowledge domain, it seems impossible that a journalist might legitimately choose not to refer to certain works – how could anyone find them not relevant? But that conclusion seems plausible because your specialism is the knowledge domain, rather than the requirements of specific kinds of journalistic writing on topics relating to that domain. The “existing conversation” into which a piece of mainstream journalism enters is not necessarily the conversation those most expert in the topic would identify.

    • I think the specialization argument is deeply problematic. Take a trivial example: arguments on social media, such as Facebook. Those of us who routinely debate friends and acquaintances on FB are frequently obliged to cite sources (by posting links) in support of our claims. Even superficial searches quickly uncover relevant information from a wide range of sources, but especially books whose titles explicitly mention the topic under discussion! It is simply impossible to miss Schulte’s book in the course of rudimentary research. But even setting this incident aside, journalists constantly refer to academic work, often building entire stories around sexy findings in the social sciences, for example. It is part of professional practice to maintain contact with academic conversations, if only at some remove. Media studies is a burgeoning field that abounds with cutting-edge work on the Internet, gaming, social platforms, algorithms, etc. How does one sit down to write on this topic without bothering to check what a whole industry of researchers have published on it?

  6. To Mary Elaine – My story and hers are NOT the same story, except for the fact that Reagan talked about it in the White House, which was originally published by Lou Cannon. This whole exchange is absolutely ridiculous. Please read my reply below, which my daughter tells me makes me sound like a jerk, for which I’m sorry, but this is very annoying. Did the author you think I ripped off write about National Security Decision Directive 145 or Donald Latham or General John Vessey or the role of Willis Ware in framing the issue of cyber vulnerability (and of the conversation that Ware had with the screenwriters of “WarGames”) or the bureaucratic battle between NSA and Congress fomented by Congressman Jack Brooks? This is what I’m saying. We’re writing about two completely different things.

    • Your work enters into an existing conversation, but your article makes it sound like you’re the one who started it—when you did not. It’s that (false) claim to novelty that draws NYT readers into your article in the first place, and that sin of omission that leads to direct monetary gain for you, with those same readers led to a note about your forthcoming book and not Prof. Schulte’s. She harvested that broader argument in her own, well-regarded, beautifully written scholarly work. As Prof. Coleman noted in her comment, your contribution to the conversation is certainly an interesting one—I am not denying that—but it seems we differ partly between standards of journalism and academic writing on what constitutes “completely different” conclusions drawn.

  7. It’s quite simple really….if my dissertation adviser would catch me pontificating on a topic without citing or demonstrating knowledge of the previous important work on that topic, he would lambast me and call me an idiot. This happened a lot because I was a lazy and indifferent researcher.

    So, did Kaplan never enter “wargames reagan” into a scholarly database? Or even just a library catalog? Because if that is the case I think I can authoritatively state that he was in this instance a lazy researcher.

  8. “My book has nothing to do with hers” and “I hadn’t heard of [her book] till now” seem to me to be contradictory statements. I mean, buddy: you either know her book well enough to make a case that your piece is doing something totally different, or you’ve never heard of it before today. It can’t be both.

  9. It seems weirdly simple to me…if Kaplan came across the same story using his own primary source material, without using or being aware Schulte’s research, why is he required to cite her research in an excerpted chapter of what is — I can only imagine, having read his other books–an extensively cited and sourced book? Is the assumption that people are required to vet every (vetted) fact they come across in their own primary source research to make sure that no one else has ever come across and published the same documented story or fact? I agree that there is a systemic problem with marginalizing female researchers, but this seems a poor case to prosecute, as the story was sourced through primary source material, not secondary. Seems a little arbitrary.

    • Thanks for the comment, MaryElaine. An excerpt from a book published in a newspaper or magazine can always include an introduction by the author, especially when additional material would make clear what about Kaplan’s argument is and is not novel. This isn’t a referendum on Kaplan’s other work, or even the rest of his book. This is about the topic he chose to feature in the New York Times, and disengagement from even acknowledging Schulte’s rich work on the topic he chose to highlight on that very public forum.

      • Thank you for your response. I have no doubt as to the quality of Schulte’s work. I’m sure it is valuable on its own merits. That is not at issue. But, I’m not sure how Kaplan could have been expected to make sure that no one else had ever published on an anecdote that he discovered in his own primary source material, especially when it is outside of his field, nor, if he is, how or whether this mandate is to be enforced across every book excerpt ever published in the Times? Are these standards that you investigate or hold every article in the Times too, or is there something special about this case…?

  10. Just a strange discussion. I follow Fred Kaplan on twitter and read his articles in Foreign Policy and Slate since I’m a fan of his foreign policy takes on current events.

    It seems clear to me that Prof Alper just misunderstands the nature of Kaplan’s article in the NYT–this narrative about Reagan’s reaction to watching War Games is an excerpt of a full length book (which has not been released and which I haven’t read) and seems obviously not to be the main point of the book but a narrative hook–an interesting and entertaining anecdote that reveals some curious ways in which the institutional actors reacted to a pop cultural artifact. Again, without having read the book, I doubt very much that Kaplan says much more about War Games, other movies, pop culture, or culture as a whole–that’s just not what I know him to be interested in.

    Here’s his description of his book that this was excerpted from:

    “Dark Territory probes the inner corridors of the National Security Agency, the beyond-top-secret cyber units in the Pentagon, the “information warfare” squads of the military services, and the national security debates inside the White House, to tell the untold story of the officers, policymakers, scientists, and spies who devised a new form of warfare — cyber war — and who have been planning (and, more often than people know, fighting) this kind of war for decades, from the 1991 Gulf War to conflicts in Haiti, Serbia, Syria, the former Soviet republics, Iraq, and Iran.

    “Based largely on interviews with more than 100 participants in the story — from cabinet secretaries, generals, and admirals (including six NSA directors) to mid-level officers, officials, and analysts, to technical experts in the heart of the national-security bureaucracy — Dark Territory chronicles, in detail, a little-known past that shines an unsettling light on our future.”

    Here’s the description of Schulte’s book linked to by Alper:

    :”In the 1980s and 1990s, the internet became a major player in the global economy and a revolutionary component of everyday life for much of the United States and the world. It offered users new ways to relate to one another, to share their lives, and to spend their time—shopping, working, learning, and even taking political or social action. Policymakers and news media attempted—and often struggled—to make sense of the emergence and expansion of this new technology. They imagined the internet in conflicting terms: as a toy for teenagers, a national security threat, a new democratic frontier, an information superhighway, a virtual reality, and a framework for promoting globalization and revolution.

    “Schulte maintains that contested concepts had material consequences and helped shape not just our sense of the internet, but the development of the technology itself. Cached focuses on how people imagine and relate to technology, delving into the political and cultural debates that produced the internet as a core technology able to revise economics, politics, and culture, as well as to alter lived experience. Schulte illustrates the conflicting and indirect ways in which culture and policy combined to produce this transformative technology.”

    Frankly, I don’t see any reason why anyone writing the former would be interested in or would want to consult the latter. Kaplan’s not writing about the cultural reaction to and shaping of the growth of the internet, and I can’t imagine him having any professional interest in that topic given what he writes about.

    • I understand Kaplan’s article perfectly well, thanks. We’re not comparing whole books here, which are obviously different in scope, but claims made in a well-publicized New York Times article (that serves as PR for Kaplan’s book). It’s not relevant how big a deal WarGames is to Kaplan’s yet-to-be published book; it was a big enough deal to be the main point of his New York Times piece though.

      • Ok, even just taking what was in the NYT article versus the Schulte article, Kaplan’s narrative about War Games is derived from direct archival research and interviews with participants and the main point of the narrative is the fact that the RAND expert who had been warning about cybersecurity for decades got his message to be actionable through an amusing backdoor because Reagan watched the movie and stirred an executive branch response after confirming that the break-in techniques the movie depicted actual vulnerabilities. The abstract for Schulte’s article says she writes about War Games as a cultural artifact causing the press and Congress to contextualize hacker culture as a teen activity because Matthew Broderick, causing tech regulation to be treated as parental and therefore more legitimate.

        There’s no apparent discussion in her article from her abstract that she would be talking about the actual break in techniques, the validity of them, that Reagan was prompted to stir the Executive branch to create a national security directive based on the validity of the description of the break in techniques. Really not seeing any significant overlap enough to see why Kaplan should feel obligated to search for her article.

  11. FK: Meryl is not claiming plagiarism and said so. Your book project is different from Schulte’s to be sure and the chapters are distinct but do have overlapping material (I re-read hers last night in light of your piece in the New York Times). What we are all surprised at is how one can do such in-depth research as you did but somehow never come across the one substantial piece written on the same topic (again, a topic is roomy enough for many pieces, this is not a claim about plagiarism). The fact that one can, as you have done, dive so deep into research and come out on the other side without even *knowing* of her work is precisely the main point Meryl is making about the invisibility of women’s scholarship. And worse now you still claim her chapter is totally irrelevant when a reading of her chapter likely could have deepened your own (very interesting, I might add) work.

    • I think his point is that while they share the narrative hook of “WarGames”, the object of his article and his book are completely different and otherwise unrelated to Schulte’s work. In that sense it is perfectly reasonable for him not to have come across her work – he simply didn’t search for all previous scholarship that touched on the “WarGames” movie.

  12. Dr Alper: I don’t mind being addressed as Mr or anything else (except not plagiarist or sexist). My point is that her work, which I’ve examined only cursorily since you made me aware of it, is in fact not really relevant to what I’m doing. I do not mean that as a putdown, just as a fact. I replied to you on Twitter several times yesterday and seem not to have made a dent in your preconceptions about me, so this is my final reply on this forum as well.

    • Then I believe we diverge on scholarly definitions of “relevance.” Unlike you, I’ve thoroughly examined her work — which, BTW is worth more than a cursory reading — and come to a different conclusion.

  13. Mr. Kaplan,

    Its one thing to not have heard of the scholar or the work, but its another to try to appeal to authority in an attempt to make it seem like your credentials (amazingly, even academic ones) justify your opinion that “academic literature did not enter into it, because (no offense) it isn’t relevant to this topic”… Ok, its fine you decided that (although I find it remarkable that an academic you did not consider prior work, even a cursory glance). However, now others are saying that was a mistake and that this is relevant. It seems to me you should justify why it isn’t relevant instead of just listing your credentials, because at some point, when people are pointing out that you missed a spot, you might as well just acknowledge that you could have been wrong about the relevancy of this particular work instead of trying to defend yourself behind a logical fallacy.

    “Alper also suggests that I have plagiarized this scholar’s work”. What part of this did you not get: “I also never said, as Kaplan insinuated, that he was “sexist” and never once used the term “plagiarism.” ?

    • I don’t read that as an appeal to authority at all, merely a note that “academic” and “journalist” are not (at least in his case) non-overlapping fields.

      Kaplan and Schulte both did work that touched on the movie WarGames; in every other respect, it seems their writing diverged. The approach differed, the theses are unrelated, etc. It’s not surprising then that Kaplan would not have come across her work.

  14. Against my better judgment, I’m going to reply, as I did to Ms. Alper’s Twitter attacks all day Sunday. First, I have never heard of the scholar in question. Second, my NY Times article is excerpted from the first chapter of my forthcoming book, “Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War” (Simon & Schuster), which is about the evolution of cyber-war policy – not what her work appears to be about at all. Third, my research for this book consisted of reading every document that’s been declassified as well as lots of works in obscure intelligence journals, and interviewing more than 100 people involved in my story, including quite a few generals and admirals (among them 6 NSA directors) and several cabinet secretaries and assistants; academic literature did not enter into it, because (no offense) it isn’t relevant to this topic. Third, I am not only a journalist; I have a Ph.D. in political science from M.I.T. My journalistic work has also won a Pulitzer Prize, and my last book (“The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War,” Simon & Schuster, 2013), was a Pulitzer Finalist in the category of general non-fiction. I am being condemned for not citing female scholars. I sympathize with the critique, but you’re aiming at the right target. (If you go to my website or pick up a copy of my book when it’s out on March 1, you will note that one back-of-the-book blurb comes from Dorothy Denning, one of the nation’s prominent cryptologists as well as (more pertinent to this discussion) winner of the Ada Augusta Lovelace Award for contributions to Internet security. Ms. Alper also suggests that I have plagiarized this scholar’s work, which is untrue and offensive. I hope this settles matters.

    • Mr. Kaplan, I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my post. To reiterate, I am not critiquing your education or your awards, nor did I call you sexist or a plagiarist. But I am asking you to at least concede that Prof. Schulte’s work is not only *highly* relevant to the specific excerpt that you published in the NYT, but makes the same broader argument first and thus should have been cited.

    • My apologies for referring to you as Mr. Kaplan in my first comment, as you have a Ph.D. and thus merit the title of “Dr. Kaplan.” I have a Ph.D. as well, and would prefer to be referenced as Dr. Alper (or Prof. Alper).

  15. This is a systematic problem that women academics face, even when their work *is* acknowledged by the press. In many cases, including a now infamous article about economics research in the New York Times, the women who lead a research project can be described as mere hangers-on in media coverage.

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