Fear and Loathing in the Blogosphere – A plagiarism primer
Last year my better half, Tim, suggested that we start a blog. It made sense for any number of reasons, but it scared the heck out of me. I couldn’t imagine that there was anything that I could ever blog about that hadn’t already been posted and probably by someone with much more experience than I have. I have a tendency (as I did today) to go out and search for other blog posts that cover the material that I’m about to write about to ensure that I’m at least adding something new with my post.
In school, if you’re assigned a paper on the pastoral imagery used in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, the instructor knows that there have been several works on that particular subject and assumes that you will be using (and referencing) information from those works. Blogging, for most people though, is not an assignment – it’s something that you make the choice to do. The people that read your blog assume that the ideas, tips and facts that you blog about are yours, unless you attribute them.
Over the past few months, there have been numerous tweets and blog posts about bloggers that have been plagiarizing other people’s works. In some cases the posts are lifted word-for-word and other cases they have selectively reworded the blog posts, but they were still identifiable. I have no idea whether it was intentional or that they were uninformed about how to use information from other posts. K. Brian Kelley [Blog/Twitter] wrote a post ‘Avoiding Plagiarism’ a couple of weeks ago. I thought I’d take this opportunity to add a little more information. As a note, I’m not an expert in plagiarism, so if any of you reading this post find errors, please comment and I’ll update this post.
On dictionary.com, the Random House Dictionary definition of plagiarism is:
“1. the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work.
2. something used and represented in this manner.”
Reading this definition clarifies the reasons for my fear of blogging. I would never lift language from another blog post, but there have been blog posts that have inspired me (like K. Brian Kelley’s) to write a post. Here are some ways that I handle referencing other works.
I think you should read this
Example: Kevin Kline wrote an excellent post about the pains of not being included in a meme. You should read it here: http://kevinekline.com/2010/01/14/goals-and-theme-word-for-2010/
In this case, I have nothing to add, but I want to give my audience the opportunity to read great posts that I’ve come across.
You can say it better than I can
Example: PowerShell is fabulous. It’s so awesome that it’s caused some otherwise contentious DBA’s to wander astray. Colin Stasiuk [Blog/Twitter] admitted as much in a recent blog post : “…it’s no secret that I’ve been having an affair on TSQL. I’ve been seeing PowerShell behind her back and I gotta tell ya even after the initial excitement of a new language I’m still loving it. “
I know that I couldn’t have said it better than Colin, so in addition to linking to his post, I quoted his remark. Quotes should be used sparingly – if you find yourself quoting more than a sentence or two, you should probably use the example above.
Note: Blogs, whitepapers or other articles that are copyrighted require permission prior to their use. In addition, some online works have posted requirements on how they can be used. Brent Ozar (Blog/Twitter) has a good example of that here.
This is what I researched
Example: While the sp_change_users_login has the option to auto_fix logins, that action assumes that the username and login name match. If they don’t, it will fail. Using the Update_One option is a safer and the preferable way to handle it. For SQL Server 2005/2008, the ALTER USER statement is the preferred method for mapping users to logins. Greg Low’s (Blog/Twitter) article ‘Much ado about logins and SIDs’ provides a good explanation for these methods.
This is probably where unintentional plagiarism occurs most often. If, during your research, you read blog posts, articles, whitepapers, etc. and find useful information, your best bet is to attribute them. If you recall the definition of plagiarism above, it applies to both language and ideas, so if you learned something that you’re passing on a blog post or if you’re using that information to validate your ideas, they need to be cited. Again, keep in mind any copyright laws that might apply.
What doesn’t need to be cited
Common knowledge/generally accepted facts
Items that are common knowledge or generally accepted facts do not need to be cited. Examples of common knowledge are:
- A table can only have one clustered index
- SQL Server is an RDBMS
- Most SQL Server based questions can be answered with “It Depends”
There is a decent article on common knowledge here.
Results of personal research
If you’re blogging about an incident that occurred or the results of test that you ran, they don’t require a citation. That is, unless, you did research to solve the incident or used other information to validate your test results.
The term ‘Fair Use’ had been bandied about in the recent plagiarism incident. The idea of fair use has no exact definition, but is determined by a set of guidelines. There is a good definition at Plagiarism.org and a good article titled “The Basics of Fair Use” by Jonathan Bailey. According to Plagiarism.org the guidelines look at:
- The nature of your use
- The amount used
- The affect of your use on the original
The ability to define fair use is pretty obscure and personally, I wouldn’t want to try and stand behind that argument. The incident mentioned above definitely fell outside of those guidelines, in my opinion.
At some works fall out of their copyright term and become part of the public domain. The Wikipedia article regarding public domain can be found here. While the copyright laws no longer apply, they still require citations. This point is moot for any SQL Server blogs, since, at this time, there aren’t any works old enough to have fallen out of their copyright term.
There is a huge amount of helpful information in blogs. Blogging also provides an opportunity for us to share information and experiences. I think that it’s understood that we learn from other people – just ensure that you credit those people for their hard work.