A few words about plagiarism and how to avoid it

tabitha powledgeThis blog post is excerpted from one at PLOS’ On Science Blogs. it is part of a longer post by Tabitha M. Powledge with the title of Plagiarism, norovirus, and Obamacare at the Republican convention. I was concerned that what was specifically being said about plagiarism might be lost for readers not drawn to discussions of norovirus or Obama care at the Republican National Convention. I think the points about plagiarism that are made need a broad dissemination and discussion.

Note the interesting quote that the idea that appropriating the words and work of others is sinful is a recent American invention.

Note also the strategy for avoiding unintentional plagiarism.

Tabitha Powledge is an award-winning long-time science journalist, book author, and media critic. On Science Blogs is her weekly look at the craft and content of science blogging.

Gizmodo’s George Dvorsky helpfully relayed scientific proof of the odds that particular words and phrases in aspiring First Lady Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention Tuesday appeared by accident in the same order as they did in Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democrats’ National Convention in 2008. Those odds are about 87 billion to 1.

That the source of the crib is actual First Lady Michelle Obama is so deliciously–I was going to say ironic, but it is truly beyond ironic. If you put it in a novel, no reader would believe it. The 87 billion-to-1 calculation came from Canadian physicist and astronomer Robert Rutledge. He says that’s about the same number of stars as in our galaxy, the Milky Way. Dvorsky’s post explains how  Rutledge figured the odds.

But according to Walt Hickey at FiveThirtyEight, the odds are much, much higher. He reports the company that makes the plagiarism detection program Turnitin calculates the “approximate probability that a 16-word phrase in one speech would coincidentally match a phrase of the same length in another speech” is 1 in 1 trillion.

Politicians analyzed the plagiarism numerically too. Aspiring US Attorney General Chris Christie pointed out that the disputed passages amounted to only about 7% of Ms. Trump’s address.

Christie’s 7% solution for belittling the offense was at least a more upfront acceptance of the obvious than the Trump campaign’s initial response. Minions spent a day spouting an increasingly fantastic string of denials. (Katie Reilly provided a chronological list at Time’s Swampland.) This tactic was ultimately unsuccessful, but fully consistent with the campaign’s overall strategy of trying to sell voters a cornucopia of alternate realities.

It took a while, but the campaign did eventually acknowledge Michelle Obama’s authorship. It produced longtime Trump staffer Meredith McIver, who fell loyally on her sword and took the blame for cribbing.  She said she offered to resign but was told that anybody can make a mistake. Her resignation was generously declined.

My favorite analysis of this ploy comes from the journalism éminence grise Roy Peter Clark, who observed at Poynter: “It is possible that McIver is the sacrificial lamb, that she played no real part in the scandal, and that her reward is a continuation of her long service to the Trump family.”

Clark offers a number of strategies for avoiding inadvertent plagiarism due to sloppy note-keeping. One is paper-based, using two different conventional notebooks, but it could be adapted easily to digital notes.

He uses a black notebook for his own thoughts and ideas, a green one for his sources. That would be simple enough to do on electronic devices using two different note-taking programs. There are plenty of good ones to choose from, both plain-text and those that can capture web pages.

I suppose it could be doable in a single program or app too, one that was flexible enough to permit distinguishing between the two kinds of information (for example by color-coding.) But with the one-program approach, opportunities for screwing up would be plentiful. Using different software would be safer. As long as you remembered which was which.

The Melania/Michelle event spawned posts arguing that copying the work of others is no big deal in many countries, and sometimes even encouraged. The idea that appropriating the words and work of others is sinful is a recent and specifically American invention, according to the aptly named English prof Karen Swallow Prior. At Vox, she traces it to the US Copyright Act of 1790.

Before the speech, Ms. Trump had told NBC News that she wrote it mostly herself. “If we take her at her word, then it is helpful to look at the post-communist educational system that Melania experienced growing up in Slovenia. In that system, what is typically considered plagiarism or cheating was exceedingly common and even encouraged,” Monika Nalepa tells us at the Monkey Cage.

Alan Levinovitz, a professor of religion, writes at Vox that when he taught in China, his students were surprised by his strict rules against copying. International students are responsible for many (but by no means all) cases of plagiarism in his current classes in Virginia, he says.

Plagiarism is a huge topic, nowhere more than in science. Instances of copying language–and, worse, work–are described almost daily at the invaluable blog Retraction Watch. The blog’s founders, Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, enjoy themselves at Lab Times enumerating euphemisms that journals have invented to avoid using the word plagiarism in retraction notices. Some examples: “unattributed overlap,” “administrative error,” “significant originality issue”. A favorite: “Some sentences…are directly taken from other papers, which could be viewed as a form of plagiarism.” Marcus and Oransky remark, “We await word on what else it could be viewed as.”