On papers, references, software and plagiarism!

Editor Neil McNaughton argues for credit where its due—to the software development community.

Imagine for a second that you are about to present a paper on the subject of special relativity. OK I know that is a bit like suddenly finding yourself on the train wearing your pajamas, but bear with me. You would I am sure, whether you were an expert or a pajama-wearing tyro, feel some obligation to include a reference or two—perhaps to ‘prior art’ by one A. Einstein?

Citing references is second nature in scientific articles. If you don’t supply references, your work will lack authority and may even be considered plagiarism. It is unlikely that you alone were responsible for the whole information value chain that led up to your oeuvre. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, although as another physicist, Carl Sagan once said, ‘to make a apple pie, first create the universe,’ but I digress...

Now, for another second, imagine that you are an engineer working for a major oil company. You had a neat, although not exactly rocket sciency idea of how to model ‘uncertainty’ or hook together a few dynamic simulators to solve an everyday problem in oilfield development. You will likely check the literature to see if there are any previous presentations on similar usage. These will be duly cited and off to print or presentation we go.

It is curious though that while such usage acknowledges ‘prior art’ in the form of other oil company work on a related theme, it actually overlooks the majority of the intellectual property that contributed to the solution. This is because, increasingly, what makes the oil and gas production world go round is software. And software is manufactured by vendors. And vendors are ‘commercial’ so we do not like (or may not be allowed) to mention them in case we are accused of the heinous crime of commerciality.

Yea, the ‘scientific’ world, and here I include all of our learned societies and conference organizers, has an abhorrence of ‘commerciality’ that verges on Marxism-Leninism.

At the 2009 EAGE (see our report on page 6) I listened to an oil company presentation which went pretty much along the above lines. Lots of interesting trivia about plugging this simulator into that and observing the results. True to form, none of the software components were actually named. In the Q&A I ask what tools had been used. The presenter duly gave chapter and verse with a caveat that such information went counter to the EAGE’s policy on commerciality.

This got my hackles up. I felt an editorial coming on. I was going to do some lambasting! Fortunately, I met the EAGE president Phil Christie shortly afterwards and was able to do a trial lambast on the spot. Phil was a bit taken aback by the idea that mentioning a product name was deprecated as being commercial. He pointed out that the latest evaluation scheme used for the extended abstracts allows for a moderate degree of commerciality. He also pointed me in the direction of a First Break article* he authored in May 2005.

Phil sent me a copy of the new guidelines. These offer a series of ratings for various aspects of a proposed paper. Thus, a paper offering ‘fresh insights from a case study’ can expect a contribution of 4 points, while a submission that shows ‘no overt or excessive commercialism’ will get a measly point. However, should your contribution include what is deemed to be commercialism ‘intended for marketing purposes rather than technical enlightenment’ you get null points, a fatal error and your paper is out.

It is clear that authors probably don’t even get down to the bottom of the list. If they do, they are unlikely go for the single point that a mention of a trademark might bring, when this means they run the risk of seeing their paper rejected for ‘commerciality.’ Vendor co-authors just have to ‘grin and bear it.’ Such is the lot of the humble supplier. For there is another factor at work here, the tendency towards arrogance of those lucky enough to be writing the checks—I know, I used to be an arrogant check writer myself!

The EAGE instructions to authors are a distinct improvement on a blanket ban on ‘commerciality’ but they don’t go far enough. In fact they are not even coming from the right direction! We should be much more concerned about giving credit to the software authors who enable our studies. There should be a systematic obligation to say what tools are used. In fact if we are concerned about the accuracy of modeling outcomes, we should really be citing software version numbers, in case a few years down the road, a bug is found that invalidates the whole study.

Adding software references is a simple enough idea, but you may like to know why it’s not going to happen. The real problem is that the learned societies get so much of their revenue from ‘commerciality’ themselves that any ‘free’ mention of a product name is seen as a threat to their revenue stream! Societies are not against commerciality at all—they just want to make sure they are getting a piece of the action!

* www.oilit.com/links/0907_4.

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