Thursday, June 14, 2012

That’s not what she said! Or what he said. But I'll take credit for it.

Have you ever had a boss or a friend take credit for your work or your idea? It wrings the joy right out of your day, doesn’t it?

While you took the time to develop a nicely written report, come up with a great cost-saving idea, or crafted the perfect project plan, your boss, co-worker, colleague, or once-upon-a-time-friend gets the credit, attention, and bonus.

Don’t you just hate that?

Then why are you doing kinda sorta the same thing?

Abnegating accurate attribution

It’s on YouTube, circulating via email, and making the rounds on Facebook. It’s “Bill Gates' 11 Rules of Life” allegedly part of a text of a speech Bill gave to a California high school.

And it’s all a lie. Well, at least the part about Bill being the source.

For 12+ years this list of exhortations has been wrongly attributed to Bill Gates, and a few others.
Even though this has been debunked on UrbanLegends.com and Snopes.com, the false attribution persists.
Many will say that it’s not important who originated the list, the ideas are just so darn cool and worthy of sharing! That’s probably what your boss thought when she stole your ideas.

If you were the originator of this list of truisms, wouldn’t you want to receive the proper credit? And, as writers, teachers, and generally all around good people, shouldn’t we set a better example for others and ensure the right person is credited?

After all, incorrect attribution is one tiny step away from plagiarism.

While you aren’t passing the material off as your own, you are passing it off as someone who didn’t originate it. This is especially egregious if you are aware that the attribution is wrong!

Perpetuating the error lends license to others to cop your stuff and label it as by someone else.
If you know who wrote something and see it wrongly attributed, say so. Offer a gentle correction. And don’t pass the material on as is!

It’s just plain lazy to let it go without comment.

The perilous pox of plagiarism

Letting an erroneous attribution slide by greases the slippery slide to plagiarism.

Plagiarizing means simply that you take someone else’s material, usually writing, and slap your name on it, declaring that it was your original work.

Plagiarism has brought down professors, students, authors, politicians, and ministers.

Publishing houses have recalled books because of it. Universities have failed students and fired professors because of it. Politicians have lost elections because of it. And, sadly, ministers have been booted from pulpits because of it.

Yet the problem persists.

Stung senseless by stupidity

Some years ago I was editing a book manuscript and my editor’s “spidey sense” kept tingling. Something about the text bugged me. I copied a random sentence from a random chapter, pasted it into the Google search box, and – oh my goodness – got a word-for-word hit. It turned out the whole book was plagued with plagiarized material easily found on the web.

The author’s explanation?

He claimed that the websites from which material was lifted was actually his own writing. This was somewhat plausible. However, the material no longer belonged to the author. Yes, it is possible to plagiarize yourself!

To share the same ideas in his book he needed to substantially rewrite the material produced for the websites, or at least credit the website.

A friend who taught evening courses that were part of a Master’s level program was baffled by papers submitted by several students. These students were adults, many holding management level positions in various companies.

Somehow these students had magically turned in papers containing several identical paragraphs. Had they copied from one another, my teaching friend wondered? No! They lifted the material straight from their textbooks!

When confronted they were nonplussed. After all, they reasoned, they were just too busy to write something entirely new and demonstrated that they knew where to find the material. They figured it was kind of like an open-book test!

They were a little unclear as to the definition of plagiarism and conveniently forgot they had signed a non-plagiarism agreement when they enrolled.

Giving right credit where credit is due

So you want to share something and you want to make sure you credit the right originator; how do you verify this?

The simplest way is to copy a string of text from the item and search on it in Google or Bing. If you can’t find a definitive source for the material, either don’t share it, or if you do, indicate that you’re not sure who said or wrote it. Ask your friends for help; someone may recognize the quote and know the source.

But definitely do not post something you know is wrongly attributed without stating so. If you see someone else do it, again, gently point out the error.

As for plagiarism, don’t do it and don’t enable others.

If you’re unsure of what plagiarized material entails or need help detecting and dealing with it, check out these online resources:
The bottom line? Wrong attribution is lazy and plagiarism is dishonest. Both should be rigorously avoided.

Yes, you can quote me. That’s Stephen with a “ph” and no “e” after Clark.


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Thoughts?Do you think wrong attribution is no big deal or truly important? Have you had an idea or something you wrote stolen? Sound off! Share your thoughts, insights, experiences, and reactions below. 

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