Plagairism and Evolution and Attribution Statements

The big news right now in social media-land is that a Buzzfeed editor is a plagairist. Here’s coverage on that from TPM:

In one particularly damning example, Johnson allegedly copied a 2009 post on Yahoo! answers.

“Throughout the London Blitz, over a million incendiaries and around 50,000 high explosive bombs were dropped on London,” wrote Yahoo! user Jason B.

Johnson appears to have used identical language. Buzzfeed scrambled to alter that passage in the 2013 post after he was exposed by the Twitter duo.

When they say he used identical language, they are not talking about a larger passage, by the way. They are talking about that sentence.

After being called out on it, Buzzfeed rewrote the sentence:

London withstood a prolonged assault by the Nazis during the Blitz, with various estimates of the explosives dropped on the city ranging in the tens of thousands.

This is apparently success — to avoid plagairism Buzzfeed has replaced a set of useful and specific estimates with some vague hand-waving.

Look, I know how hard it can be to write a sentence, and how much research and thought can lie behind a single clause. But we need to get over this.

Here it’s a Buzzfeed writer. But every day in my own job I type original paragraphs that someone somewhere has written better, and every day in your job you do the same. How much time do we spend trying to find alternate ways to string together two numbers and a conjunction? We do this wheel-reinventing instead of doing work that extends the work of others and solves new problems.

Giving no credit was a dick move on Johnson’s part, absolutely. But writing facts out of the sentence to avoid plagairism is ridiculous. It’s time to create technology that lets credited reuse happen without showing visible stitches to the reader. Paragraph level tracking doesn’t exist yet in SFW, but it could. The Comprehensive Attribution Statement, if outfitted with an attribution primitve for de minimus use could be another way to go about this. I’m sure you can think of more approaches.

But this is a stupid game we’re playing, and it has to stop. It’s time we evolved. If you are reading this on Chrome or Mozilla you are benefitting from thousands of lines of code written by uncredited programmers, many of whom never made a dime. The system works because in the small community of *producers* they can point to their work’s reuse as an indication of their talent or commitment. In this sort of world, it’s hard to understand why mundane sentences about bomb statistics would merit special treatment.


4 Comments on “Plagairism and Evolution and Attribution Statements”

  1. What’s wrong with just linking to the source?

    • mikecaulfield says:

      Linking to the source in text adds cognitive load on the reader, decreases comprehension, and leads to a less focused and less pleasant reading experience. And if you’ve looked at clickthroughs on articles on any post you’ve written, it does appx. zero for the original writer. It’s also particularly ill-suited to heavily remixed texts.

      The idea of a comprehensive attribution statement is better — it preserves attribution for the people who want to know the attribution while keeping it out of the way of the reader while they are reading. But it still doesn’t allow me to directly discover *how much* of a sentence was borrowed which is why I’d ultimately like to see SFW-like tracking.

  2. Mike, instead of building endless and useless chains of attribution, or adopting technical solutions to prove our integrity, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate the ethics of attribution and redefine them for a different world. I’m inclined to think that the notion of plagiarism still has a place, but it might mean something quite different in 2014 than it did in 1914.

    • mikecaulfield says:

      I agree with that, mostly, except that there is a necessity to see how documents came about anyway. I’d like to know, if I use the London Blitz article in my own work, that the number was from Yahoo Answers. Most readers won’t care, though, so why clutter up the main text?

      Completely agreed though that calling lifting short, mundane sentences “plagairism” in a copy/paste world is getting less and less helpful to us as a culture.


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