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.