Plagiarism

12 October 2006
Categories: Rants, Self-referential

It’s an ugly word, and an uglier practice. And anyone who has taken a high-school-level writing class, let alone a college-level one, should know what constitutes plagiarism, where the dividing line between that and paraphrasing stands, and how to properly attribute quotes and do more than merely change a word here or there and pretend it’s kosher. And even though it’s not printed on paper, the Internet is no exception. That’s why I was surprised to find plagiarism so extensively practiced on a web site run by an online acquiantance, and moreover a compatriot and fellow MSU alumnus and MSU history buff.

(Nice guy, too… even if he’s pestered me more than once to purchase a vanity license plate that would be worthy of inclusion on his “Spartan Plates” web site … never grasping the fact that I consider it antithetical to buy a pro-Michigan-State license plate that, no matter what the message, will of necessity have the word “Illinois” on it.)

Anyway, the more egregious of the two pages to rip me off was something he wrote (for lack of a better term) for presentation during an on-campus tour he hosted on the 150th anniversary of the school’s founding, 12 February 2005. Of the five locales they visited, four of them were described using extensive excerpts from my site, each one on the order of 100-plus words long. He made sure to thank me for my research at the end of the presentation, and during a one-time-only oral recitation I would not expect full citation of his sources. But once he placed the text online, the situation changed. At that point, proper scholarship demands quotes, indented paragraphs, and citations.

His other page is a collection of MAC/MSC/MSU artifacts, several hundred items in length, that he has collected over the years. He has acquired lots of cool stuff, and it’s a joy to see. Yet in at least three cases, he again quoted me directly and did not cite his source (except for a brief note of thanks toward the top of the page).

What irked me, and triggered me to call him to the carpet, was this: one of the lines he “borrowed” was from one of my best articles, the one on old Williams Hall

Williams Hall surely was the center of collegiate life for many years. The bell in its tower chimed each morning to wake the students, and tolled the end of each class period.

I had a lot of fun writing this article (in part because I managed to imply that fans of U of M are—or at least were in the 1860s—covetous, arrogant, and duplicitous), and this line stands as one of my very favourites. In a few words, I was able to convey the joy of being a student at the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, by having the same bell chime (a happy occasion) and toll (a sad one).

Whether he caught this meaning or not is immaterial. As in the other cases, the line is repeated verbatim, with no way of knowing that another author created it.

So I wrote him a lengthy e-mail. I tried to keep the whole thing as friendly as possible, starting with a “hope all’s well” and following with a tidbit of information to help him improve one of his captions, before launching in a regretful tone into the meat of the issue. I ennumerated all the troublesome captions and said (I guess I never asked, nor said please… no matter) I expected proper attribution. I then offered a couple of corrections, one that I’m certain was caused by me having originated the mistake on my site.

I got a response within a day. It was terse, apparently because he’s travelling for business. He thanked me for my info and said he’d make changes as soon as possible.

Yet there is no hint of apology. This leaves me still somewhat irked. I guess if he fixes it, I’ll let it slide. And regardless, it will never make up for this: in my opinion, his slack… well, call it ethic… reflects poorly on our alma mater, Michigan State University.

(Follow-up)

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