What Google Taught Me About Plagiarism

Sparrow on Barbed Wire
“If you persist in staying silent at a time like this, help and deliverance will arrive…from someplace else; but you and your family will be wiped out.” Esther 4:14 (MSG)

A blog I’ve followed and valued for years recently plagiarized content from another source which I also happen to follow. As a writer, this made me sad and angry. While the non-confrontational part of me would prefer to unsubscribe in silent protest of their morally ambiguous writing tactics, my feistier side wanted to call them out on it.

How easy it would have been to leave an anonymous, skewering comment on their blog post, exposing them for all to see, as if it’s my right or responsibility to shame anyone publicly. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” and all.

Aren’t there enough trolls lurking in the bowels of the internet, spewing venom and bad manners in ALL CAPS LOCK? What good would it do to sink to that level?

Still, the indiscretion tugged at my writer’s heart.

I understand how challenging it must be for full-time bloggers to constantly and consistently generate content for their readers (I admire them for their hard work!), and I also understand that sometimes mistakes get made. I’d like to believe that we all have good intentions, that each of us wants to do what’s right, but the world can be a complicated and shady place. When does indifference become negligence? And when does “looking the other way” make us complicit in wrongdoing?

“If you persist in staying silent at a time like this…” When Mordecai sent this message to Queen Esther, he was urging her to speak up and save the lives of her people — to thwart a plot to kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire. A small act of plagiarism seems laughable by comparison (I know!), but aren’t those words haunting? If you persist in staying silent at a time like this

I decided to send an email to the blog in question, privately and respectfully, pointing out the error in hopes that they’d rectify the situation. To their credit, they replied promptly the next morning, acknowledged the “oversight,” and said it had been corrected. How nice! Hooray for professionalism and ethics! Except… they didn’t correct it. The blog post remains word-for-word the same. No clarification, no apology, no proper attribution. *Sigh*

In its early days, Google adopted an informal company motto — “Don’t Be Evil” — to act as a guiding principle in their business. Whether or not they’ve held to this standard is a matter of debate perhaps, but nonetheless, it’s a noble idea.

Do the right thing.

When it comes to creating and using content online, you don’t need to look far to see cracks in the ethical facade. Copyright isn’t sexy or fun, is it? We’re just pinning all the pretty things on Pinterest! What’s the harm in that?

The problem, of course, is that many people make a livelihood from their creative work. All of the beautiful content we see floating around on the internet is not magical, communal property! Someone — a writer, a photographer, a designer, a real person — has put time and energy into the creation. Some of those creators choose to share their work freely and allow it to be used or adapted with permission. (Hooray for Creative Commons and good for them!) But not every creator feels the same, and they’re well within their rights to expect fair treatment.

Intentional or not, plagiarism is a serious ethical breach, not to mention a potential copyright infringement.

Here’s what I’ve learned: If you want people to trust and value the content you’re creating, be honest and kind and respectful. Don’t be evil or lazy. Don’t “borrow” or share someone else’s work if you don’t have permission. If you aren’t sure, ask. Cite your sources. Give credit where credit is due. I promise, your readers won’t think less of you for quoting someone else if you’re willing and able to say something fresh and meaningful alongside it.

In the end, I did unsubscribe from that blog. Whether or not they care about losing one reader, whether or not they decide to make a correction or do better in the future, they lost my respect, which ultimately detracts from the good work they were trying to do in the first place.

Inspiration is everywhere, but let’s not ruin a good thing, ok? We can do better than evil — inadvertent or otherwise.

[ Photo credit: See-ming Lee ]

2014 Reading List, Part 1

We have an ongoing joke in our house that 73% of statistics are made up on the spot. That number varies, but it seems to work its way most often into conversations involving political polls, science, or fascinating “Did you know…” facts. The point being, of course, that all purported statistics should be taken with a grain of salt and a dose of self-deprecating humor. (Yes, we’re nerdy like that.)

I only mention this because yesterday I came across some staggering numbers on the reading habits of Americans, which made me question the future of humanity and/or consider spending my life savings to buy more books for ALL THE PEOPLE EVERYWHERE.

As it turns out, those statistics are possibly untrue. (Rayna debunks them here, and the Pew Research Center has some slightly less dire numbers, so all hope is not yet lost. But stilll…) Today, I’m feeling the urge to curl up with an extra large stack of books — and send a big donation to charities like First Book and Room to Read.

Reading has been my love and constant companion for as long as I can recall. I can’t imagine my life without books! Not everyone has that opportunity, and even those of us lucky enough to have a life-long love of reading often set the bar too low for ourselves.

Library Gilbert Highet Quote

What we choose to read reflects who we are and what we value. Books are a gateway to a bigger world outside yourself and a deeper well of experience within — a window of discovery, where you meet people and hear ideas you’d never experience in real life. To read the Great Books is to have a conversation with some of the greatest minds the world has ever known. A Kindle full of “beach reads” falls flat and pale by comparison.

The truth is, there will always be more books than time, which is exactly why Thoreau advised us to “read the best books first.” Over the past few years, I’ve tried to be more diligent at devoting time to reading better books.

My goal each month is to read one classic (from my Tackle the Classics list) and at least 2-3 other books (mostly fiction, memoirs, history, or writing/creativity). I only plan a few months at a time, as mood and interests steer me in new directions throughout the year. (It’s hard to say in February what books I’ll be ready for by December!)

Here’s my reading plan for the first few months of 2014. I’d love to hear what you’re reading too!

I use Goodreads to organize and keep track of all the books I want to read, but these shorter reading lists work well for keeping me focused. I wish I had some literary friends to discuss books with in real life. But I suppose it’s no surprise that introverted bookworms have a hard time finding their kindred spirits! In the meantime, I find inspiration online from ardent readers like Edie at Life In Grace and Rachel at Elephantine, whose tastes in books I trust and admire.

What’s on your reading list this year? How do you stay organized and motivated?

[ Photo adapted from Stewart Butterfield ]