1389640213202578466-1It’s surely got to be OK to quote Wikipedia. I know there’s a certain tendency among the highly educated to disdain the wiki-ness of Wikipedia. After all anyone could have written this or that bit of information, not necessarily a member of the guild. I acknowledge that it is possible for Wikipedia to get information wrong (I have corrected some of it myself), but I am pretty confident in referring to it most of the time. So it seems were the editors and one author of The Oxford Textbook of Zoonoses. Their problem appears to have been a failure to acknowledge the source, or perhaps forgetting that they had copied material from that source. Gizmodo is on their case.

I find it quite surprising that such things exist at all, but there are on-line plagiarism checkers. Just paste in your piece and they’ll tell you if it’s not original — if the original you copied is in the database they use, I suppose. Seems a bit of a hassle for teachers checking high school essays, though I’ve seen assertions that this is being done. The borderline between quotation and plagiarism is I suppose guarded by a reference-road-block. Quote your source and you pass; fail to do so and you remain in purgatory. But of course it’s not quite as cut-and-dried as that. Influence can be subtle. We obviously don’t need to footnote Darwin’s Origin of Species every time we refer to the theory of evolution, and which one of us would be aware whom to reference when writing about, say, plagiarism. However you might get me if I wrote “Nothing can be more unjust than to charge an author with plagiarism merely because he makes his personages act as others in like circumstances have done” without letting you know Dr Johnson had said it before. But what about: “It’s really unfair to accuse an author of plagiarism just because his characters act in the same ways as characters in an earlier book”?

I expect Richard Posner’s The Little Book of Plagiarism mentioned at The Book Designer‘s excellent survey, provides guidance. His comment that “Plagiarism is a kind of deceit that’s never undertaken by accident” sounds OK, but doesn’t altogether cover the case. What if, as I suspect the Zoonoses author may have done, an author copied and pasted some Wikipedia material as a sort of place-holder, intending to go back and rework it, or maybe reference it, but then forgot, and when pushed to deliver his paper sent it off unrevised? He did it by accident, but surely he did plagiarise. In such a case RefME could have saved him!

Blurry lines. Perhaps the lines are less blurry in the world of zoonoses.* But given that nobody can be sure who wrote what in Wikipedia (except perhaps some Wiki editors) how could the editors correctly attribute the material? Well, they could have referenced Wikipedia, though I suspect academics are leery about doing this because they have this sneaking fear that Wikipedia may not be authoritative. (But in that case, why would they be relying on it?) A further problem it seems to me is that a wiki is a wiki. What it says today is not necessarily what it’ll say tomorrow. You, if you’re signed up as an editor, can go in and change text. I can: though I’ve no interest in spreading misinformation about zoonoses, or anything else for that matter. This of course is the basis for the power of Wikipedia: assuming good will, we can rely on any factual error being corrected quietly and quickly. (The more contentious areas where fundamentalists in politics, religion, pop culture, celebrity sighting and so on, vie with one another to write incendiary claims into Wikipedia pieces they enthuse about, are unlikely to affect academic referencing.) The web’s very mutability makes it risky to use any on-line site as a source in an academic study: the reader following up the source may find something different from what the referencer saw when writing the piece. A reference in a book needs to be a static target.

No doubt this is itself a subject for academic study.

In the aggressively non-academic worlds of romance and gay romance plagiarism can be rather more straightforward. Just copy the book, change the names and turn the heroine into a man and a whole new world of opportunity for money-making is open to you. The Guardian has the story which they share in their weekly Bookmarks newsletter. In a somewhat ambiguous and incomplete apology the plagiarizing author says “In transforming two M/F romance stories into an M/M genre, it appears that I may have crossed the line and violated my own code of ethics”. Appears that! Might changing just one romance, or transforming them to other M/F stories, have fallen within the limits of her code of ethics? In extenuation she cites personal and professional issues which she’s had to deal with in the last year. Amazon has made the book unavailable. The publisher, Hot Corner Press, looks like it’s Ms Harner’s own indie publishing company.

Looking for more examples? Wikipedia, of course, has a List of plagiarism incidents.


* Fascinatingly The Oxford English Dictionary does not include the word, even in its on-line, regularly updated version. Apparently it means a disease passed from animals to humans. Obviously the Academic division is out ahead of Reference here.