Saturday, September 16, 2006

On being "borrowed"

I was going to write some comments about an article I just read on a topic near and dear to me, but as I was reading through the article I found that some of the language and ideas were a little ... too familiar. I saw that the writer cited in the bibliography an essay I had posted on the web several years ago. I made a little comparison between the two and found the following:
  • Near the beginning, there are some phrases that are almost exactly the same as my phrasings. The phrases are all part of one sentence in the introduction. (I'm not Shakespeare or anything, but the phrasing is almost word-for-word.)
  • The writer also used sources that I had used, which is perhaps not surprising, although we are not in quite the same disciplines. The writer used a couple of quotations I had also used.
    • In one case, I had put a long quotation from a secondary source in block quotation format. The writer of this article used the same passage, changed a couple of words, and included the passage in the body of the article without marking it by quotation marks or block quotation format (although there was a parenthetical citation of the source).
    • In another case, the writer used the same two short quotations from primary sources that I had also used in my paper. These were not "obvious" quotes (partly because they are from primary sources). Also, the writer didn't cite the source of those quotations in the bibliography. And the writer's translation of one of the quotations is almost identical to mine. (Again, there is no indication given whether or not my paper was the source of these quotations.)
  • There were also several references to a key concept/term that I had used, but no definition of that concept (something I had provided) or citation of the source of that concept.
The article itself is rather wide-ranging and is longer and goes into more detail than my short paper did. It makes use of secondary sources that I didn't use--mainly because the writer is not in the same discipline as I. So I'm not saying that the writer just copied my ideas--there's quite a bit in the article that wasn't in my paper.

I think it's possible that the writer of the article didn't mean to borrow ideas/language without properly citing them. (Which is also why I'm not saying what the article was or who the writer was, though some readers can probably guess what the topic was.) And I am glad that my paper was at least mentioned in the bibliography and in an in-text citation. And I guess I'm not too surprised that the editors and reviewers of a highly-ranked journal like the one that published this article wouldn't be able to catch these problems before publication. But it makes me sad, and it makes me less willing to put more scholarly stuff on the web. I don't have a lot of great ideas (maybe none!), and if my future as an academic depends on getting my ideas published in some scholarly forum, maybe I'd better keep my mouth shut about those ideas before they're published.

I'm sure I'm not the only person this has happened to. What did you do when it happened to you?


senioritis said...

I did nothing when it happened to me. And what happened to me was much like your experience, except that it was someone who had reviewed a journal submission I'd made. My article was rejected, but parts of my material appeared subsequently in another journal.

You have nothing to gain by making a formal complaint. On the other hand, I think there is some value in informally outing insufficient cituation, as you've done here. The question in contemporary media (which weren't available when I had this experience) is whether you link to the questionable text. Most people seem to be choosing not to.

Jonathan Benda said...

Thanks for the response, Becky. I'd been mulling over whether to write to the journal editors about this (or even the article's writer), but I think I agree that it probably wouldn't be to my advantage.

By the way, I see the Cliopatra blog picked up on this post and your comment. But they use the word "plagiarized" to describe the action, which I'm not ready to use in this situation. I suppose one could argue that the writer of the article should have known better and properly cited those portions I mentioned, but I just don't think there was the intentionality that the word "plagiarize" connotes to me. Then again, maybe I'm being too nice...

Michael Turton said...

I think you're being too nice. Mayhap have a third person write in a tone of innocent wonder to the editor "Shucks, have you seen how this resembles the piece cited in the bib?" And see what happens. Then you can be the most surprised person in the world when they contact you. Of course, you'll have to delete this entry.


Jonathan Benda said...

The way information travels these days, I figure sooner or later this whole thing will get back to the writer of the article. What happens after that, I don't know.

BTW, I had my bag stolen today--it had my ATM card and bankbook in it, along with 2 flashdisks (including one with a copy of my dissertation files in it). I hope bad things don't really come in threes...