It’s the sin of the ages in academia. You don’t take someone else’s work and put it out as your own. There are many famous cases of plagiarism in academia and if you want to expand the field a little to journalism and pop literature not to mention music, there are several recent high-profile cases. Borderline stuff goes on all the time. For example, graduate students get pillaged of their ideas in research projects, often with a footnote non-specific acknowledgement. I’ve been the subject of plagiarism a few times (that I know of). The first time it happened, I really got angry. I was out shopping for a job, fresh Ph.D., showcased some of my dissertation at a lecture, and a few months later found parts of my work in one of the interviewer’s submitted manuscripts. I was mighty peeved. It feels like you’ve been violated.

But as years went by, and this kind of thing happened a few more times, I began to think that my experience was only the tip of the iceberg in more than one way, and that the notion of plagiarism is not orthotropic. It has a spectrum of values and it occurs in an unbelievably wide variety of places. Why do we, I mean as humans, do it? (Ok, we do it to climb the ladder, showing off that our ladder has wider spacing in its rungs.) It seems obvious that it really is thievery, doesn’t it? And doesn’t it seem a bit bent that an LDS religious(?) author would steal somebody else’s stuff?[1]

Proving plagiarism is sometimes tough though, and we’re all familiar with the well-publicized case of this or that song, this or that popular bit of literature (Harry Potter?!?) where the accusation seems opportunistic and even clearly bogus. In earlier times, the practice may have been less frowned upon in some circles. But this is now.

That said, I’ve become more phlegmatic about it in recent years. Occasionally I have found that my meager Church writings are plagiarized by, well, you wouldn’t believe who (I mean as a class). And that there is a distinct prejudice in some quarters about acknowledging “web-acquired” knowledge. Just because a manuscript has not been published and you found or were given a copy, doesn’t mean it’s fair game in the “anonymous knowledge” pool. And it seems that there is a point of view out there that anything found on a blog or webpage is free for the taking (I mean, free of acknowledgement of source). I can understand the idea that web resource seems like digging in the trash barrel to some old-school people.[2] And maybe this or that chunk is really substandard, and you just want the one little gem you found there, so you take for your own. That is a mistake, and it’s a sin if you care about that sort of thing. At, we do our imperfect best about acknowledging source. It’s a group effort and I admit we have not always been perfect there. But where we’ve made errors, we’ve tried to fix them. And if you know of errors there, we want to fix them.

But people, get a life about this. The Modern Language Association has published the rules about using web resources. It’s a legitimate academic use and those sources should be acknowledged in the recognized way. Church folk, get on the honesty bandwagon. US blogs are copyrighted material and so are web pages. No copyright notice required. It’s not kosher to rape and pillage for source material and pretend that where you found it didn’t exist either. If you want to borrow someone’s idea from their blog rant (hehe) in your paper or even your own blog, you need to say where you got it or at least who you got it from, as much as that might seem like lowering yourself into the dirty dance of the internet. I know, probably preaching to the choir here.

And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

[1] I’m not even digging into stuff like BYU stake officers who have Sunday use of professorial offices and find the odd bit of interesting stuff there and go ahead and copy it for their friends. Yo.

[2] People, old folks included, if you’re writing your pet project and you haven’t bothered to search what’s out there on the web, blogs, whatever, your research is not done, and you may have been scooped. That does matter, even if some editor doesn’t know about it.

10 Responses to Plagiarism

  1. J. Stapley says:

    I have to admit that I would love to know what specifically invoked this post.

    I have found a ton of sources via internet searches, but if I quote or cite from one of these sources, I always, without exception, verify the transcript in the ms or published version. I typically don’t give a nod to the website where I originally ran across the source (I often don’t keep track, unless the website is offering ideas that I want specifically to cite). Is that kosher?

  2. WVS says:

    J., in my work, I sometimes find things on the web, and for ms sources I do double check the source. But I try to follow the MLA standard now for listing, maybe using an “as quoted” or just listing the web page, unless there are egregious errors in which case I may make some comment to the effect. Basically, I use the same policy I would employ if I was reading a book, found a footnote or text-quote say. The MLA has raised the bar for this sort of thing, and I think it’s justified. And no, I’m not saying why. But I’m a little angry I guess.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    hmmm. I should probably review the MLA guidelines. It seems to me that there are a number of things that can happen. For example if want to discuss post-BoM use of seerstones, I’m going to point to your stuff and particular items within it. On the other hand let’s say that a family has transcribed a bunch of family documents online and I find a particular excerpt of interest. If they exist in an archive, I’m typically going to go and read the ms collection and make my own transcript of items of interest. I think it makes sense to do that, no? On a couple of occasions when someone has done some analytic work, like created a topical bibliography or lists of sources, I point to those.

    I have the same habit with books as well. If I find a cool quote, I try and read the original source. And if a particular author adds value, I’ll include them in the note as well, if they don’t add value, then I don’t. For sources that are generally available and widely read, I think that makes sense. Though after reading the MLA guidelines, I’ll need to repent.

    Also, for digital archives like google books and BYU digital collections I usually cite as if it were the original. I cite, Uncle Dale though, because those are his transcripts, if I haven’t looked at a specific item. Poor form?

  4. I would be tempted to do a paper and cite the people who plagiarized me as supporting matters I had written about before ;)

  5. WVS says:

    I have no doubt about about your scruples J. I’m a little bothered about some people is all. Carry on. I’ve learned to err on the side of caution is all. There can be lines that are difficult to discern sometimes, I know.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    I didn’t mean to distract, WVS. You bring up important and challenging points. I’m just trying to process it and hopefully do better.

  7. John Mansfield says:

    How far does it go? If a Google search brings me to a useful webpage, should Google receive a credit for its role?

    • WVS says:

      No. In fact, it’s no longer necessary (unless an editor requires it) to give web addresses. For example:

      Eaves, Morris, Robert Essick, and Joseph Viscomi, eds. The William Blake Archive. Lib. of Cong., 28 Sept. 2007. Web. 20 Nov. 2007.

      The two dates are (1) publication date (if known) the date after "Web" is the date the material was accessed.

      Suppose you found a journal at some family organization web page with a title. You could cite it like so, assuming Fred Smith is the transcriber (editor) of a typescript (TS), and say you don't know when the thing was produced:

      Smith, Fred. "John Smith Journal." 28 May 1844. TS. Smith Family Organization. n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2010.

      If you wanted to, or are required to give the address you could add a line enclosed by < pointy brackets >.

      Since web sites can be ephemeral, you always download or print a copy in case some editor requires proof of access. However, most web material gets archived now (

      For a blog post, you can cite like so:

      Smith, W. V.. “Plagiarism.” [Weblog entry.]’s Blog. The Book of Abraham Project. 24 Oct. 2010. Web. 26 Oct. 2010. (You could give the web address of the entry as above. If there is a sponsor it is inserted in italics.)

      The rules vary depending on the situation. I’m only offering that web pages or blogs, ephemeral though they be, still get cited if you use them, rather than simply extracting some bit and citing the source as though you found it yourself. There are times when that might be ok. But if you are using an online collection of documents, say, it would be appropriate to note that the doc you found and want to use is available online as well as say in some library special collections division.

  8. smb says:

    J, I don’t cite googlebooks. If someone adds nothing to a source and it’s a source that’s described by others on the web, I just use the original source (ie track down the original and cite it from its host archive). If something is unavailable elsewhere I cite the web source. My personal practice for stuff that is brought to others’ attention by a particular individual with obvious precedence, I tend to just say “I thank Jane McGillicuddy for this source” rather than bogging down FNs with URLs.

    Bill, would you be satisfied with an acknowledgment like that, or are you suggesting that such would be insufficient?

    For me the harder ones are when a source is one of just a couple sources that publishes an old document or excerpt and the interpretation is so obtuse as to not be worth spilling ink. My preference is to just go to the host archive and review the document myself and not launch into a FN war with an obtuse interpretation. Say nothing or say not nice?

    (Incidentally, I’m publishing a book called _Bope D’Ote Org_ this month that for the first time in print transcribes great documents about early Church history–I’ll be happy to get you a review copy once it’s published and copyrighted.)

    (And life imitating art here, I still remember when that happened to Nick Litterski back when he maintained that temple dedication site–some dude just printed Nick’s website as a book and started selling it without even communicating with Nick. People are strange.)

    • WVS says:

      Yes, people are strange. Sam, personally I think its fine to acknowledge that someone provided a source as you indicate. I only note that MLA now acknowledges blogs as citable sources and a format for doing so has been engaged. Whether it is used or not is case by case I think. What I object to is simply lifting an analysis or a unique cite without acknowledgement. Generally when you quote a source, as it is given in some published work you say “blah blah blah” (source) as quoted in (secondary source) say. Appropriately a blog or webpage *could* be such a secondary source these days.

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