Referencing vs. Plagiarism

The semester is about over (only some finals and the graduation ceremony remain). In a few days I’ll be celebrating my birthday – time for a selfie reflecting the integrity of my writing. I addressed some aspects of the ethics of my writing earlier (January 6, 2015) but a lot has happened since then and things do change.

I have been writing this blog for more than six years using basically the same methodology: trying to connect current events to some basic science, focusing on anthropogenic (human-influenced) climate change in a way that people with different backgrounds can relate to. My targeted audience is the general public, including my students. I also have the benefit of editors who, while not trained in the sciences, are much better qualified in writing than I am. This has proved to be an excellent synthesis, the need for which is visible throughout the blog.

Why a return to the ethics question now? It was a Google alert that brought up this story:

Republican lawmaker: Rocks tumbling into ocean causing sea level rise

By Scott Waldman, E&E News May. 17, 2018, 9:10 AM

Originally published by E&E News

The Earth is not warming. The White Cliffs of Dover are tumbling into the sea and causing sea levels to rise. Global warming is helping grow the Antarctic ice sheet.

Those are some of the skeptical assertions echoed by Republicans on the U.S. House of Representatives Science, Space and Technology Committee yesterday. The lawmakers at times embraced research that questions mainstream climate science during a hearing on how technology can be used to address global warming.

The article describes in some detail the confrontation between many committee members and the scientist that testified in front of them. The title comes from a comment by representative Mo Brooks:

Every time you have that soil or rock or whatever it is that is deposited into the seas, that forces the sea levels to rise, because now you have less space in those oceans, because the bottom is moving up.

                                                           Representative Mo Brooks (R–AL)

Even though Representative Brooks’ response is, scientifically speaking, absolutely absurd, I found what happened to the piece itself very interesting. The original (cited above) comes from E&E News. On two consecutive days, Google alerts notified me that a variety of different publications had reprinted the same piece. Direct Googling of the title produced even more. Some of them would not grant me access to the full publication without a subscription. As usual, if I didn’t have one, I skipped it (as I’m sure you do). I pay for subscriptions to many publications and have access to many more through my school’s library, but some of these were not available to me. I have no idea how many publications that repeated the original E&E piece charge for subscription. Are they plagiarizing? is it theft? Did Science magazine, one of the most respected interdisciplinary science magazine that we have, pay to republish the E&E piece? – I have no idea. In general, publications that are directly republishing a piece from another publication do cite the original. And even if they are not directly republishing something, the original is often at least referenced, and a link is placed in the new story.

On the internet, there are rules that govern reprinting or republishing articles. Often, however, those rules are overlooked since most online publications feel that the more their story gets around the internet, the more people will visit their publication’s site, hopefully leading to more readership.

But I was trained in writing scientific papers, in which data and methodology are key so readers can evaluate my arguments based on the data. That way, if they so wish, readers can try to reproduce my data if they disagree with some aspect of my methods. Academic papers also generally include introductions with references to other people’s work and conclusions broader than their own data justify. In cases of more theoretical work, some scientists might not present any data of their own – just new interpretations of data that were already published by other researchers. Almost all scientific papers include extensive lists of references that can be checked and scrutinized.

Given that my blogs and my teaching target the general public, it is a good bet that the majority of my readers will not actually visit the originals. In reality, scientists rarely do so either but the practice is cherished for other reasons (such as the prestige for original authors in being added to the citation index). The general practice is instead to cite a relevant paragraph or figure that substantiates the argument being made. I do the same, always including a full reference to the original (and a link, where possible); anybody that wishes to check whether I am using the excerpt out of context is more than welcome to refer back to the original papers.

So, am I plagiarizing? The best argument that I can make is that which I already made in a paper that I wrote together with Geraldine DeLuca, a productive writer and professor of English at my school. Below is a short abstract of the paper as well as a longer segment that describes my thought process after I wrote my book on climate change:

Personalizing the Anti‐Plagiarism Campaign

Geraldine DeLuca and Micha Tomkiewicz

Abstract: In response to a pamphlet on ways to avoid plagiarism published by their university, a science professor and an English professor reflect on their own writing practices. They also explore such topics as electronic plagiarism detectors, the history of “imitation” in literature, the Popperian formulation of the scientific method, the postmodern notion that “everything is already written,” the problem of “unconscious plagiarism,” Foucault’s “author function,” and the different assumptions about truth made in the “objective” work of science and the “subjective” work of the humanities.   They reflect on some reasons why teachers’ guidelines may foster plagiarism among students, and they suggest ways to frame assignments that help students to do their own work.

The Limits of Acknowledgement: An Extended Example in the Sciences

Toward the end of my first reading of CUNY’s anti-plagiarism pamphlet, I find myself feeling horrified. Have I been plagiarizing? I have just finished writing a book on energy use and the consequential climate changes. The book sits now on a publisher’s desk and goes through the usual vetting process. I wrote the book with the premise that the issue of global energy use has reached the existential point where it is directly related to the future existence of the human race. Some characterize the situation in terms of a feeding transition that will take place as organisms suddenly need to change their food source. The present estimate is that this transition will occur over the next two or three generations, that it will require collective action in response, and that, at least in democratic societies, this action should be initiated by the election of legislators who will respond to it. But in order for voters to respond intelligently to this crisis, they need to understand what’s happening. Thus, my book, which is heavily based on centralized data sources that, in the majority of cases, are freely available through the Web. And since climate change affects and will continue to affect global income distribution, competition for natural resources and economic security, it is no surprise that one can find opinions, references and new research throughout the media.

So I had good reason to worry. Was I using all of this research appropriately? My wife and I were recently married by Judge Richard Owen, an opera composer of some notoriety, who is famous in certain circles for coining the phrase “subconscious plagiarism.” He used this phrase in a trial in which former Beatle George Harrison was accused of plagiarizing the melody for “My Sweet Lord” from the Chiffons’ 1963 hit “He’s so Fine.” The two operating criteria for plagiarism, he said, were opportunity (Harrison had heard the song) and sufficient similarity. Intent to copy was not necessary.

Controversial topics like energy use and climate change are prime suspects for “subconscious plagiarism.” So I asked my wife, who is a psychologist, what to do about my own work.

You have three options, she said:

1. eliminate the cause of your anxieties by dropping the project;

2. live with your anxieties; or

3. confront the cause by checking for plagiarism. Use the same tools that an unfriendly reader or your publisher might use.

The full paper is available online and includes what I did with my wife’s advice.

Am I self-plagiarizing here? How many of you actually went to the original blog that I linked to in the beginning to check what I wrote there and compare? Those of you who did so found that while I am repeating the abstract here, the long section that directly relates to my own writing appears here for the first time.

Am I stealing anything from anybody else? In the book that I wrote (which I referenced in the plagiarism paper), most of the figures were taken from readily available literature. In all required cases I asked for permission before posting. The book was published by a commercial publisher so they guided me through the process. The permission process took time that is not feasible in a blog setting (I publish weekly and write each post a few days before posting). That said, I have never gotten any complains about permissions for citing works within my blog.

In this age of social media, data comes in many forms and gets passed around blithely; one might refer to tweets or Q&As from an interview. In a political environment where the president is known for his heavy reliance on tweets, what we need to remember is to check the original sources and verify the data whenever possible.

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About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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One Response to Referencing vs. Plagiarism

  1. Jack Edelman says:

    I think that we first have to define what plagiarism actually is. Plagiarism, as I was taught many times, is the act of taking words first published by someone else and claiming those words as your own. So if you publish someone else’s words, it is NOT plagiarism as long as you put their words in quotes and/or as long as you cite that person(s) as the original publisher of those words. By doing so, you are admitting that those words were published by someone else! Therefore, it is NOT plagiarism! As long as you REFERENCE what someone previously said/wrote, it is perfectly legal and ethical!

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