October 24, 2010 10 Comments
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?
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. 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 boap.org, 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.
 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.
 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.