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Credit Crunch: The Online Plagiarism Battle

Plagiarism doesn’t seem to be a concern when it occurs outside our own area of expertise. Internet culture gets bogged down in arguments over who gets credit.

Credit Crunch

A different kind of credit crunch is happening online. The question of who gets credit for which work has crushed some social Internet spaces.

Word for word wiki-p

Twitter users demand to be credited for their original tweets, even if the tweet is nothing more than a link to another person’s work. Flickr photographers staged protests until the service found a way to attribute licensing. Pinterest die-hards won’t pin any photos that don’t link to the original photographer’s website. Etsy crafters are crazed with other sellers knocking off their designs.

Being concerned about getting your proper amount of retweet credit is what one would call a first-world problem. Credit for curating links is not as worthy as constructing the content behind the link. Good curating has a place in a world of information, but not as valuable a place as users think. Linking back to the original photo on Pinterest is a matter of etiquette but not required (In fact, searching for original websites may prove inhibiting to using the service). Etsy crafters are in it for the money as well as the craft; a knock-off design isn’t a compliment but a direct hit on a seller’s bottom line.

The Fight

Since the onset of the Internet, factions have fought fiercely over who gets credit for what and when. The fight covers written work as well as ideas, design, photos or any type of online product. Today I’ll focus on written work.

The design of the Internet at times makes attributing sources difficult (e.g., 140 character limit on Twitter, forum threading). Alas, even the very definition of what constitutes plagiarism is elusive. Esteemed website Salon.com has a recent panel piece discussing plagiarism, and while the panelists bring up interesting points, they all fail to define plagiarism in this age of digital and social media. Why do the experts avoid defining plagiarism? Because it’s nearly impossible to detect and trace, even with the most exacting of standards. The wikipedia entry for “plagiarism” is littered with citations, as if more citations make the concept simpler to grasp.

As a life-long writer, photographer and crafter, the issue of plagiarism has been relevant for me since childhood. I started struggling with the concept in elementary school. Essays were generally expected to be little more than a re-write of the subject entry in the World Book Encyclopedia. I knew, as a 9-year-old, I couldn’t possibly gather information about dinosaurs myself. So, I surmised, everything I’d write would be plagiarism, despite the fact I followed the instruction to “write it in your own words” (a favorite phrase of all teachers on Earth).

Copy and Paste

I always write everything in my own words; I’ve got plenty of my own words. Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I don’t often find myself word-free. This doesn’t mean I’m plagiarism-free. In this world of big data, our unconscious minds synthesize and then spit out gobs of knowledge without remembering the source. We’re only human.

Another challenge that keeps us all from toeing the original-attribution line is the discussion of what qualifies as plagiarism. The definitions of intellectual property, copyright and fair use in the U.S. are so clouded up with legalese and popular opinion you can’t breathe let alone blog without violating the law or some random rule of etiquette. Twitter users violate laws daily. Bloggers are notorious for “stealing” ideas. Flickr photographers mimic. Even back-fence conversations with neighbors violate copyright each time a person tells a joke.

Forever Valued

The written word is the bearer of wondrous mystique. Sound vanishes. It’s heard in time and then it disappears. One cannot revisit a concert hall and expect to hear the sounds made the night before. Even if recorded, the live experience is gone. Written words, though, can last forever. I can visit a blog post and expect to see the words written the night before. In fact, if all goes well, I can visit the same blog post in 100 years and expect to see the same words posted there. Words are easily captured and kept online.

The written word has a powerful past. Historically, writing was an esoteric skill reserved for only the most elite. The written word was considered threatening to monarchies. Indeed, the written word can free slaves, start wars, end wars, birth nations and break hearts. Understandably, people tend to get a little crazed when a writer’s work is used without credit. We have to wonder, though, if the written word, especially in the form of a link or other curated object, is still as valuable as the rare and powerful words of the past.

A blog post is not of equal value to the Constitution of the United States. It isn’t more valuable than the daily banter at the corner barbershop. But once someone blogs Sweeney Todd’s daily orations, the words seem to gather more weight than necessary. People – especially those of a certain age – place banter into a different category once it’s posted; The value of online “print” is many steps above the value of the uttered phrase. Written words are a commitment, a treatise of sorts, a somewhat drastic move that we are taught to avoid unless necessary. We need to rethink this high value assessment.

People should be allowed to post their thoughts without the threat of repercussions or being accused of plagiarism. If we all followed the old adages “Never put anything in writing,” and “Always cite your sources,” there would be no Internet. Social networks, websites, and everything Internet-related (even YouTube) are all driven by text. Should we stop interacting online because we can’t remember, like humans often can’t, where we first heard or saw something interesting? Of course not. The old laws and traditional values placed on written words haven’t caught up to Internet culture and our current lives.

Governments are formed on written words. In documentation and legal areas the value of the written word remains, but not all words are of equal value. We must keep our contracts to keep our way of life, but to assign a blog post the same weight as the Constitution is a miscarriage of justice and a sure-fire way to sink our society. Instead let’s broaden our ideas of online communications and encourage innovation and creativity in groups and individuals.

Extractors, Exponents, and Experiencers

To put it simply, there are three types of people in this argument about plagiarism: Extractors, Exponents and Experiencers.


Extractors are the criminals. They are the writers of software bots that steal and post blog entries with no linking credit. They are the writers of term papers from wikipedia articles. These people are crooks and no-one would disagree that what they do is stealing. We’re not talking about these types today.


The Exponents will be sticklers for the perceived law or morality around plagiarism. Lawyers are at the extreme end of this spectrum and elementary school teachers are on the other end. I find many people in the start-up and early-adopter worlds fall under this category. Their tempers flare when patents or some anomalous idea is in play.

a pinterest "rule"

The start-up world, they argue, is based on ideas, and any infringement on intellectual property is considered stealing. Exponents can be found in all walks of life, not just in lawyerly circles. The non-techie users on popular inspiration-board website Pinterest.com post pointedly-typeset banners that declare pinners should always credit the source of the photos on their boards.

To Exponents, credit should always be given where credit is due, no exceptions. If you can’t remember the source, don’t relay the data. The Exponents are more individually-focused; they want to see the person or the organization get kudos for their original work.


The Experiencers are more concerned with moving ideas forward and less concerned with identifying the originator. Early adopters, tourists, and op-ed columnists sit on the agreeable end of the spectrum and the copycat businessmen lurk on the other.

Experiencers want ideas to “contribute to the canon” so to say. Experiencers want technology, thought and perhaps mankind as a whole to evolve. Individual work isn’t as important as entire movements that can effect change for the better. Experiencers would say a bucket needs many drops of water to get filled. Once one drop is next to another, we can’t tell which drop came first. Experiencers believe that ideas are like water – en masse and bonded to one another. Ideas are free, but the implementation is not. Experiencers ultimately admire not the idea generation but the application, the hard-work process of bringing the idea to life. The Experiencers would tell start-up entrepreneurs to concern themselves not with keeping their idea secret but with getting to market first and dominating the market best. The guy with the first filled bucket wins.

On The Range

Most of the time we all waiver between Exponents and Experiencers. We tend to be the stickler Exponents in our own field, widening the definition of plagiarism to the point where competitors are eliminated. We harbor fantasies of being untouchable in the market. We think any piece or concept surrounding our idea should be protected so we can have the time to fully develop it ourselves.

When it comes to areas of expertise outside our career paths, we tend to think like Experiencers and are more lenient on what constitutes plagiarism. We can see more clearly the “big picture” of ideas and think of their origins as more generally than individually based.

This jumping between views is all terribly convenient, of course, but that’s what it is to be human. It’s also a common practice in a crappy economy. We’re all worried about our livelihoods. When hard times hit, humans align themselves with allies. Tribes tighten their circles and work though famine times together. Since 9/11and the coincidental ubiquity of Internet access, many pundits have observed that people are searching out their like-minded cohorts online instead of listening to diverse voices (so much for the democratization of the Internet). Again, this is a human trait that has helped us survive for eons.

But we must fight any tendency, be it fueled by instinct or learned skill, to over- or under-play the importance of attributing credit. Too much stickling for the rules results in censorship. Too little attribution discourages creativity. Either extreme fosters fascism. If you believe in democracy, then you believe in discourse. Let’s encourage mature discussions as much as we can.

Copy These Tips

Here are some tips and techniques to consider when you’re passing on your knowledge.

Don’t Plagiarize

The University of Pennsylvania’s writing program has a helpful website for its students called “Tips for Avoiding Plagiarism.” Here’s the gist:

  1. Don’t procrastinate. Plagiarism happens most often when writers are pressed for time.
  2. Make a habit of taking notes and keeping records. (You can do this on Twitter, say, with the Retweet or Favorites functions. On Pinterest you can use the “Like” or “RePin” button. On Google + the +1 or Share button. Facebook has Likes and Shares also.)
  3. Don’t rely heavily on direct quotes. Use quotes only for effect, when necessary, and always keep them brief.
  4. Cite when you aren’t sure if it’s required. Err on the side of caution.

If you aren’t writing formally, perhaps just a blog post or a tweet, link to original ideas when you can but don’t let it stop you from publishing a thought. Here are some phrases you can use to avoid seeming like you are pirating ideas:

I heard this recently…
This topic came up…
I saw this on Twitter -speak up if you were the original post author-…
Have you heard about…
Why does it seem like everyone is talking about…
I’ve often wondered…
The idea that’s bouncing around the Internet…
I would modify this idea with…

Encourage Discourse

Here are some highlights from the article “Techniques for Group Discussion” from The Community Toolbox.

  1. Be aware of your biases.
  2. Don’t “beat a dead horse” – outline your points and then let someone else talk.
  3. Remember you aren’t the be-all, end-all expert in a topic.
  4. Monitor comments and follow-up.


Anything to add? Comments commence.

-Christine Cavalier