Citation plagiarism

There’s a big debate going on about this at Language Log.  If you cite a source you found in another source without citing the mediating source, is it plagiarism?  What if you’ve gone back and read the original source?  What if you’ve read some of the source but not all of it?  What if you couldn’t get hold of the source? What if the mediating source hasn’t altered the original source?   Hey people wake up! Hell yes it’s plagiarism!  Because somebody else did the work.

But this is not to say I don’t occasionally do it.  And since I notice that nobody is getting confessional, I’ll step up to the plate and see what happens.  I just sent an article off yesterday — yay! — and, unlike many of my articles, it had a bajillion citations.  So my foibles are clear in my mind.  For the most part I am immensely careful about both checking and attributing, but here are three cases where I crossed the line.

1. I wanted to mention a little piece of Hollywood gossip I found a lot of places on the web.  It was impossible to tell which web source was first with it, but eventually I found someone citing it from a book.  I could tell that the book in question predated the web accounts, but I couldn’t tell whether, in the book, the author attributed the story to a further source.  I cited the book without looking at it, mentioning that the gossip was probably “unverifiable.”

2. While I was following up links to the Hollywood gossip, I came across a fantastic quotation by a famous writer and knew I had to use it.  The website was citing from a lousy book.  I got the lousy book, and found the original source in the notes.  I then got the original source by the famous writer and cited from there, without mentioning either the website or the lousy book.

3. At the very end of the whole business, I came across a few words quoted in an article.  The article was reliable and the words were clear; I am sure if I’d gone to get the book it would have had no effect on how I used the line.  I therefore did not get the book.  And nor did I say “cited in x,” but this was only because I had already cited x, and described and praised her main argument which had nothing to do with the little quotation.

In my defense, I will say that I read everything I could find on my topic, cited lots of people who aren’t usually cited, and also tried to preserve a lineage in the footnotes, that is, to say things like “p was the first to say q, and he was followed by r and s.”  In other respects as well, I tried to do everybody justice.  Except maybe in these three cases.


10 thoughts on “Citation plagiarism

  1. Without commenting on the particular cases you mention, does it matter whether it’s plagiarism if I just say it’s not good practice?

  2. The question of what to call it comes at Language Log: Plagiarism? Just plain lying? Or something else. I’m fine with it if you don’t want to use the term for legal reasons. But when we’re alone in the dark we shouldn’t forget that plagiarism is about stealing work, and that’s what this is I think.

  3. hey thanks for the shout out on your blogroll. i have no insights into plagiarism, except to say that i don’t do it! but i have been completely egregiously plagiarized and in a major major journal and by a major major literary figure too. i’ll tell you about irl sometime.

  4. Many of my friends have been plagiarized, some egregiously. It seems to go along with having good ideas. In many cases (though not all) it’s a matter of being a young scholar whose work is ransacked and lifted by an established scholar. Frickin awful.

    Looking back, I think I felt free to list my examples because I don’t feel guilty about any of them. Take example #2. Who among us would write a footnote saying “G.B. Shaw, Major Barbara (17), cited in Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul (56)”?

  5. Also: ‘Chicken soup for the teenage soul’ previously belonging to Emma, although now a slight embarassment. Not as much as the fact that YOU seem to have read it recently. Mid-life crisis hmmm? Indulging in ‘real-life’ stories of nostalgic teenage angst and romance?

  6. No, it wasn’t really Shaw and Chicken Soup! That was just a representation, with names changed to protect me! (There’s nothing wrong with your reading CS when you did. But we will sell it at the garage sale and never mention it again, ‘kay?)

  7. For me, the goal in citation is to give the best quality source: the original. This is because citation isn’t really about showing your work; it’s about letting other researchers follow up your explicit inquiry by going to the cited passage in its original context, if they so choose. Telling the reader that you found Shaw in a chicken-soup book, or heard “I longed for a memory beyond consolation, a memory of shadows and stone” cited in _Bi-tanic_ (to create another fictional example), really doesn’t serve the reader unless you’re writing specifically on the flux between “high” and “low” culture.

    In any case, none of this bothers me nearly as much as certain scholars’ assumption that all English translations are excellent, and hence sufficient.

  8. esque, mon amour, that’s all very well. But how would you feel if you read an article on Levinas that happened to cite a bunch of quotations that *you* had cited in a previous article — someone who was maybe offering a different interpretation or maybe even writing on a different topic but was obviously plundering your hard work gleaning from secondary (and maybe primary) sources, without referring to you?

    I’d love to hear more about the reliance on translations. Yah, if you’re going to make hay of a specific formulation, you can at least go to the bother of checking the original (esp if the translator’s name is Hand).

  9. That really wouldn’t bother me, I think, although I would expect at least a pro forma citation of my hypothetical article elsewhere in the article/book, in another context. In other words, as long as the reader has a sense that my work was on the author’s radar screen in one way or another, that’s enough for me.

    Did I ever tell you about my campus interview at my current institution? A colleague who worked in Buddhist Studies, remarked on my habit in my dissertation of only citing non-English sources when no English translation existed by saying, “You know, if I did that, I’d be laughed out of my field.” It was clear that her remark wasn’t aimed particularly at me, but the whole subfield of Western religious thought. And so, the next summer, in her honor (she had recently lost a battle with cervical cancer), I spent nine weeks correcting all the English translations in my diss.

  10. On the translation issue: I honour you. On the other one, I guess I simply disagree. I think that non-explicatory notes have two main purposes: one so that the reader can find the original and judge for herself, and the other to preserve a lineage. You recall, of course, that the messiah will come when all of us who repeat teachings repeat them in the name of the teacher.

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