Plagiarism on the Net

Anyone who blog posts in the fashion that I do is a plagiarist of some sort. Plagiarism in this case is defined as not citing your source information correctly. Now, keep in mind that my wife is a college professor of technical communication and has lectured me several times on the definition of plagiarism. Do not send me comments about how linking to the website is citation enough. If you paraphrase, quote, mention, or write anything that did not emerge fully formed from your own skull, you are supposed to cite your source. That is where we bloggers fail miserably, because we paraphrase all the time, with only a link-back to justify our actions.

I am not going to change, however. We’re not publishing academically or professionally, and in that case, I believe that my citations are sufficient. There is, however, that breed of site that plagiarizes directly without any attempt to inform the reader that they are doing so.

For example: My last post was about a biofuel alternative. I had two links in my feed reader to this one. I read the first one and found this entry at the bottom.

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by University of Wisconsin-Madison.

So I went to the UWM site and read the substantially same information. Then I went to the second site in my feed reader, Biopact.com. I found the same information, copied directly from the UWM press release, with absolutely no attempt to alert the reader that this was not written by Biopact. There is even a blockquoted paragraph halfway down, again copied directly from the press release, which would imply to the reader that here is text taken from elsewhere, rather than copied along with the rest of the article.

This sort of activity gives everyone a bad name, and I call on Biopact to not do it. A quick blurb (see my post) followed by a link to the press release would be the acceptable format.

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18 Responses to Plagiarism on the Net

  1. Ken says:

    From pictures, to quotes, to entire articles, blogs are very poor at citing their sources. When I was younger, I didn’t mind it so much. I didn’t really take the web seriously. Now that blogs are competing with traditional media as news sources, I’m starting to mind it. If blogs want to be taken seriously, they ought to not only link-back, but cite/credit their sources in the article or as footnotes.

    I wonder if, in another 20 years, there will be “Strunk & Whites’ Elements of Style, Web Edition” for web grammar, etiquette, and citation? :)

  2. Biopact says:

    Sir, with all due respect, but you are spewing a false accusation here. The entire purpose of a press release is that it is taken up by other media. You do understand this.

    Contrary to many other media, our website even linked to the original press release.

    Moreover, the article is re-written by us, with additional information. So your accusation is not only foolish, it is plain wrong too.

    If you think you’re on to something, you are going to have to ‘expose’ about 50 million news organisations and websites who, unlike us, don’t even mention the original source or who copy the release as it is (unlike us). You’re going to have to ‘expose’ billions of articles. Good luck.

    We ask you to remove this gratuituous accusation, which is based on your total lack of understanding of how publishing works.

    Kind regards,
    Biopact Team

  3. Biopact says:

    We just checked back to the article. Let us add that we not only linked to the original press release, we did so *twice* in one and the same short text. Once in the article as a hyperlink, and once below the article with a full reference – that largely suffices as a reference, don’t you think?

    We can point you to many much larger and real media organisations who don’t even do this.

    You better find another example to illustrate your point.

    So we ask you again to remove your gratuituous accusation.

    Thanks again.

  4. Biopact says:

    Ok, one more thing, we found the press release at the press release distribution service called Eurekalert, here:

    http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-06/uow-ued061807.php

    The entire rationale behind the existence of a press release distribution like Eurekalert is to have media outlets to copy and paste the release. Without even crediting it.

    We were so kind not only to reference to it twice (which is normally not done), but we even went so far as to link to the University of Madison itself (which is even done less, because copying it from Eurekalert without mentioning the press release agency is the standard in the industry).

    In short, we often credit far more extensively than many other media outlets, even in cases where this is not even required in the slightest.

    Let us repeat: the entire goal of a *press release* is for other organisations to copy it.

    Please remove your gratuitous accusation, and find another target to shoot on.

    Thank you.

  5. Bill says:

    Biopact: I’m sorry that you find my accusation so infuriating. It wouldn’t have occurred to me, except that you make absolutely no attempt to call attention to the fact that the wording presented on that release is not your own. Citing the original source beneath your story as “More Information” does not indicate to the reader that the text above comes (mostly) from the original release. Usually when press releases are copied in their entirely, they are copied in their entirety, such as the text at eurekalert, which you call out. Your article does indeed add information but it pieces it together with text taken directly from the press release. If this is commom practice in the news publishing industry, I haven’t noticed it before.

    I acknowledge your note that millions of websites are perpetrators of this activity. I don’t believe I’ll be making a campaign against every one of them. All I can do is call it as I see it, and your site happened to pop into my feedreader today.

    As you’ve deleted my comment our your website, I’m going to leave my post here. I think your reponses are adequate in your defense.

    As I said in the first paragraph of this comment, I don’t know if this is common throughout the publishing industry, but I choose to call it unethical for the electronic publication forums we are both a part of. You may choose to decide I’m a crackpot neophyte, but I think you should make a better effort to distinguish between your own words, and someone else’s.

  6. Bill says:

    I received an email from the Editor in Chief, with the same general text as above. I have responded with this:

    Sir,

    I have responsded on my blog with my thoughts on this topic. I have not removed the post as you requested, however you have pointed out that I do not have much direct publishing knowledge. I will endeavor to discover the official and common practices for press releases through the various outlets and if necessary, I will edit/retract the post in place.

    Respectfully,
    Bill Ruhsam

    So, if I discover I’m entirely or partially wrong, you’ll see it here.

  7. Ken says:

    Wow, somewhere in Brussels, they’re burning you in effigy, Bill. :)

    The argument of “well, everybody else is doing it… expose them, good luck” isn’t quite what I’d expect from a multi-national non-profit and consulting service. Had I, as an individual blogger, taken a press release, paraphrased it, and presented it as my own with an obscure “more information” link that took readers offsite… well, I probably would have gotten a lecture from the original author asking me to credit my source or remove it.

    Good article, Bill… your argument is no less true.

  8. Bill says:

    Before anyone decides to run off and burn either myself or Biopact, I should note that this blog post is filed under “Opinion” and is merely the ideas of yours truly. In keeping with my This Week in Traffic posts, and Favorite Photo of the Week, I may have to start looking for the Plagiarist of the Week, although I’m really not interested in crusading. As I said earlier, this was an accident of circumstance. If I had read the Biopact article first, I wouldn’t have remarked upon it.

  9. Mebbie says:

    As a tech writer/editor who use to write press releases and coordinate controlled circulation placement for a living, I have to weight in on this one (my intent is not to flame anybody).

    To redistribute a press release in its entirety, without alteration, is simply considered distribution of that press release. As Biopact points out, it is acceptable, and quite frankly, it is encouraged. However, changes were made to this release by Biopact (I’ve examined them thoroughly via a word by word comparison) and then redistributed. While Biopact surely has an agreement with UWM to use this release (I hope), it gives the impression that they alone are responsible for the creation of the text (instead of James Beal). And while the average reader might not give this much thought, it is folks like me (and Bill) who see the block quote and assume that, that section is the only text taken from another source.

    Documenting a source on the web to the acceptability of academia is surely going to be awkward and often impractical. However, I would encourage the use of a statement that indicates something to the effect of “This document was developed by making modifications to a release provided by XYZ company (link to original release here).”

    In reality, the world will not end over this. Both Biopact and Bill point out that this is done everywhere on the Web. Unfortunately, this is simply a characteristic of the medium that will surely never be resolved.

  10. Biopact says:

    Mebbie wrote: “To redistribute a press release in its entirety, without alteration, is simply considered distribution of that press release. As Biopact points out, it is acceptable, and quite frankly, it is encouraged.”

    Thanks for pointing this out to Bill who was not aware of this very basic fact.

    When we make a block quote, it is merely a way to stress a particularly important fact. Not to create the impression that the rest is all written by ourselves.

    Moreover, anyone can see that we *always* put a reference to the original article (which is not done by most others who give no reference at all), in a hyperlink, in the first section of the text.

    This has become a standard way of referencing material, already widely being used by some mainstream media.

    We are not going to change this practise and we’re definitely not going to give a reference to the distributor of the press release – because that is a bit absurd.

    I have never seen a single press release taken from a service like Eurekalert and posted in a media outlet, that actually then refers back to Eurekalert. That would be surreal.

    So we’re not going to change our very generous and probably overzealous referencing style, just because Bill was not aware of how things work in publishing.

    But we do hope that he and his readership have learned something.

  11. Jenn says:

    Love the idea of “Plagiarist of the Week”! I may steal it Bill ;) If you don’t mind… I may even give you credit…

  12. Jenn says:

    Biopact: You seem to have missed the relevant point in Mebbie’s post, that the changes you made in the press release (the alterations) change the status of how it should be used.

    Also, your “links” to the original article in no way show that you are referencing (or exactly quoting) large sections of this article. The link in the first paragraph and the “more information” link at the bottom in no way show that this information is from the press release. This may be more than your “less ethical” peers do, but it still doesn’t give any credit to or any acknowledgement of the source of your information. In fact, the “more information” links at the bottom to a variety of other articles suggests to me that you did research and found these to be particularly useful references. This implies that you may have used all these sources in writing this article, but not that you drew particularly on one or that the vast majority of your article is taken word for word from one of them. This is misleading.

    I am also curious as to why you would not show when you are quoting an outside source. This would only give your article more ethos and authority, while being more ethical and proper. Frankly, I am many other readers would find the quotation of researchers at an esteemed university much more persuasive in an article such as this than text that appears to be written by volunteer citizens (words taken from your “about us”), however noble the cause of these citizens. I’d trust your article much more with proper attribution because you would be citing experts. This would only make the article stronger and the site seem more professional.

    Sadly, the use of so many words from a press release without acknowledgment of the source severely weakens your ethos and makes me much less likely to trust anything on your site. If you are willing to take peoples’ words without any acknowledgment of where the words came from, then what else will I find on your site? Although your goals seem important and noble and ones I would fully support, I do not trust the site or the organization because of the plagiarism. My support is lost, and likely you are losing the support of others.

  13. Jenn says:

    Biopact: Just for your reference, plenty of sites do acknowledge when they use press releases and when material is adapted from press release. A great example is http://www.sciencedaily.com/ . In all the articles I read on this site there is a lovely note at the bottom that saying “This story has been adapted from a news release issued by…”. Plus, the articles also include the actual source at the very top. This may not reach academic standards for citing sources, but this is more ethical and not as prone to plagiarism as the methods you use.

    Another site that acknowledges its source is: http://www.dieselnet.com/. Sometimes it is necessary to click the more link, but all the articles I read acknowledged the source.

    Other examples of correctly cited or acknowledged use of press releases:
    -http://ryanlanham.wordpress.com/2007/06/21/press-release-given-meaning-philanthropic-web-site-updated/
    -http://www.fiercebiotech.com/node/7343
    -http://theinsideclamdigger.blogspot.com/
    -http://ryanwyatt.livejournal.com/39484.html

    I could list tons more but it is way past my bedtime. While looking for these sources I did not find any sites that did not acknowledge the use of press releases. Perhaps I did not look hard enough to find the “50 million news organisations and websites” (Biopact) that plagiarize all the time. I do not doubt may sites do, but just that I didn’t see any tonight besides the Biopact site. Let me point to one more new organization that acknowledges its source—CNN. CNN always notes when the use an AP article with the simple (AP) in the first line. Granted, this is not a press release, but it does show how one major new organization shows when someone else is writing the articles.

  14. Jenn says:

    The Evil Eyebrow is correct. To quote E-learning in Journalism from Columbia plagiarizing is “to take and use as one’s own the thoughts, writings, or inventions of
    another” (http://www2.colum.edu/undergraduate/journalism/no_plagiarism/, they cite the Oxford Dictionary here). To continue to quote Columbia, three particularly relevant things (among many others) are part of the definition of plagiarism: 1) “lack of proper attribution”, 2) “borrowing details without attribution”, and 3) “borrowing quotes without attribution” http://www2.colum.edu/undergraduate/journalism/no_plagiarism/2whatswrong.html). I could provide tons of sources with similar definitions of plagiarism, but to summarize, plagiarism is the use of other’s material (and anything that was not in the writers own head before researching the writing) without proper citation.

    What is proper citation or attribution varies from style guide to style guide, but all the style guides I have read state that using the exact words of another require quotes and an in-text citation after each use. Paraphrasing only requires an in-text citation. Any material that is either quoted or paraphrased should
    also have a full reference at the end of the article/paper/document. So, regardless of how it is normally done (and as I will show below journalism and major journalism professional societies are against plagiarism in any form including this form), this is still plagiarism. Even if every website in the word steals parts of press releases word for word without credit that does not change the simple fact it is plagiarism. Just because everyone else does it (and not everyone does) doesn’t give anyone the excuse to do it.

    Now clearly news journalism handles the use of sources slightly differently. However, plagiarism still exits in journalism, even with (especially?) press releases. Yes, it is common to use press releases in full with the often brief reference. But going further with the press release and changing it enters a new area. Yes, acknowledgment of the original press release is good, but even in the field of journalism it is considered plagiarism to not clearly denote where outside information (like the press release) is being used and especially where it is being quoted. Columbia suggests a few things to avoid plagiarism and two key ones that clearly apply are: 1) “Always identify the sources of your information as you are gathering it. If you are paraphrasing, be sure to include the source” and 2) “If you copy something verbatim be sure to put it in quotes and identify the page number and source, whether it’s a book or magazine or page on the World Wide Web” (http://www2.colum.edu/undergraduate/journalism/no_plagiarism/3avoid.html). Thus, Columbia agrees with the Evil Eyebrow that attribution is required or else it is plagiarism.

    As soon as the press release is changed in any way the changes (additions, subtractions or whatever) and the material from the press release must be clearly shown. Otherwise one of two things will happen (depending in part on whether it looks like a copy of the press release or an original article):

    1) People will think the whole article is original to the author/site

    2) People will think all the material, changes included, are part of the original press release. This can cause further problems because the additional of material now appears to come from the company/organization/whatever releasing the press release. Not only is this putting words into others mouths and all the issues related to that, but if any of the material makes a false claim and harms the press releasing company this is now libel.

    Obviously either option is unethical and leads to issues relating to plagiarism, copyright infringement, claims of stealing and so much more… Thus, any ethical writer and organization should clearly document where they are using sources and especially where they are quoting sources. Any material without such attribution is assumed by the reader to be original to the writer of the article. A link here or there is not enough. Each instance that a source is used it must be cited, or it is plagiarism.

    A quick bit of research on the internet provides plenty of support for the Evil Eyebrows’ case (and now mine, and every major style guide, professors across the nation and likely word, and journalism societies, and so on and so forth). Here are but a few examples:

    -“Excerpts from Ethics Codes on Plagiarism” http://www.concernedjournalists.org/node/209 : See especially

    the “San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News” section where it says “Plagiarism exists in many forms, from … the publication of a press release as news without attribution” and “Do not borrow someone else’s words without attribution.” Other interesting relevant tidbits: “Words directly quoted from sources other than the writer’s own reporting

    should be attributed. That may mean saying the material came from a previous Free Press story, from a television interview, from a magazine or book or wire service report” (Detroit Free Press). Also also, “Plagiarism is the act of lifting the words and work of others and representing it as one’s own.” (Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise)

    -The Code of Ethics for the society of professional journalists has a few things to say on the matter at http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp. Especially key is bullet 3, where it says to cite sources (which include non-people sources and press releases, of course) and 9, which simples states “Never plagiarize.”

    -Here is a discussion of plagiarism involving a press release: “A study one Forum reporter (either Janell Cole or Dan Davis) reported on by plagiarizing directly from one of the group’s press releases back in October of last year. The Forum actually copied and pasted entire paragraphs from the Center for Rural Strategies’ press release and put them in an article as though it were written by an objective journalist.” (“Fargo Forum: Yay! Rural Folks…” http://sayanythingblog.com/entry/fargo_forum_yay_rural_folks_are_turning_liberal_according_to_a_press_releas/)

    -Here is another example discussing plagiarism “The other half of Talon’s output was slanted in some fashion, including some material also lifted from press releases. …Talon archives reveal propaganda at every turn, including material from Bobby Eberle, the organization’s president and CEO. In one case, Eberle turned press releases from a Republican congressman and a right-wing political group into “news” running under his byline. (“Talon News: Propaganda & Plagiarism” http://www.epluribusmedia.org/features/2006/0327talon_plagiarism.html ) Note: they are providing examples of plagiarism here and observe that “lifting material” from press releases, obviously without correct citation is plagiarism…

    -A conversation about plagiarism without proper attribution on the society of professional journalists forum http://www.spj.org/messageboard/message.asp?rs=254

    -Even Wikipedia provides information on how to correct cite press releases: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Citing_sources/example_style

    So, in summary of this rather long response, the use of any source without direct attribution for each and every use is plagiarism. It is plagiarism according to Wikipedia, according the well know newspapers; it is plagiarism according to society of professional journalists; it is plagiarism according to major style guides (MLA, APA Chicago, and so on) and it is plagiarism according to the Evil Eyebrow. It is plagiarism. Whether or not others do it, or even if it is done in “50 million news organisations and websites” (Biopact from above) doesn’t change the fact it is plagiarism. If everyone else was jumping of the bridge, it doesn’t mean you should… and it certainly doesn’t change the fact it is wrong (unethical, illegal, and so on too!).

  15. Annie says:

    Hands her fellow Ph.D. a cookie.

    Well geeked, Jenn!

  16. Biopact says:

    Sorry, but it’s not because Wikipedia says how one can reference a press release, that one must. The standard in the industry is not reference them. We do. Unlike most other new media publications.

    We’ll leave it at that.

  17. Jenn says:

    You did not reference them—at least not in any way that acknowledged them as the source of the copied information. What you did, according to Wikipedia; every style guide I have ever read; professional and academic journalism, writing, communication and PR societies; American universities (and I would assume other countries that have ethical citation practices); and general common definitions, is plagiarize the material. You did not give credit to the source and certainly did not acknowledge your full use of the material. By every definition I have seen this is plagiarism. PERIOD.

  18. Biopact says:

    We referenced them. Twice. Period.

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