More questions than answers regarding the acceptance of plagiarism in social media.

The other day, I visited my favorite social news site, Mixx, and saw something that sparked a lot of questions in Plagiarismmy head. It was an article, quite popular on Mixx in the few hours it had existed, that had an interesting title. The truly interesting part of the title was that it was only one word off from the exact title of an entry on this blog less than one month ago. Furthermore, the title structure (exactly the same between the two posts) was very specific. The title-similarity alone got my attention. I was further sucked in when I noticed the writer of the new article on Mixx had read (or at least voted for) the article on our blog when it came out last month and, yet, he had not even mentioned the original post in his new post. No link, no citing, no credit given even to the idea what-so-ever.

Intrigued, I read the post and left a comment expressing my confusion with the forgotten link or possible plagiarism (in addition to providing more standard commentary on the content of the post). Since the title and main thrust of the content was largely similar to the original post on our blog I really wanted desire feedback or at least explanation from the new writer.

While this is a predictable, emotional response (“he’s ripping off my partner’s ideas!”) it is not worth giving real weight to. The actual interesting part of this whole episode is not how I reacted initially, but the question “how I should react in the future?” It seems there may be some changing in the definition of plagiarism as related to social media. The aforementioned unanswered questions that burst into my head are:

  1. To be honest, I liked the new post. I thought it added value to my morning and was definitely worth a read. Do these facts remove the need of the author to give credit to where credit is due? Is credit due?
  2. It would seem to me that if I wrote a new book on sales/negotiation and titled it “Getting to an Affirmative”, I’d have some credit to give and a link to include (and possibly some royalties to pay). Is the analogous situation valid? If not, why not? If so, is this same rule not true with social media?
  3. Occasionally some blogs or social news sites will tackle the same issues, ideas and content at the same time. This is an unavoidable fact of having 60 million blogs in this world. Does that mean “plagiarism” is no longer a problem in social media? Or has the rule merely gotten more lax?
  4. If the rules have loosened, where do they stand now?
  5. In the theoretical sense, if our population growth and internet usage continued to increase without bounds, we would eventually reach a point where there were identical (or nearly identical) posts being written by unrelated people concurrently. That wouldn’t be plagiarism as neither writer would have seen the other’s post prior to writing. Are we there already?

In the particular case, the author of the questionable blog post explained the genesis of his post to me in such a way that convinced me that he did not mean to plagiarize in any way. Does his good intent clear his name?

Personally I think the “plagiarism line” is definitely moving and re-hashing people’s content is becoming more acceptable due to increased acceptance in the community. I would guess these pressures come from the ever-increasing number of posts and the rather finite bits of news in any given day. If this is true, the biggest question that every one of us needs to consider is “is this changing definition plagiarism a step forward or a step back?”

I’m not so sure I have an answer to that one yet.

Written by Brennan White