Have I been plagiarized? If so, what do I do?
March 4, 2014 3:14 AM   Subscribe

I wrote a lengthy scholarly article last year, put a preprint of it on my university's institutional repository, and thought no more about it. In January this year, a British journalist published a piece of popular military history with a major British trade press that appears to contain about 6 pages of very, very close summary and paraphrase of my article. What to do?

I know the author read my article because he refers to it in the endnotes about 6 times. The problem is that he does this in a way that minimizes the debt he owes to it. My article includes quite a few extended passages from soldiers' letters and diaries and he's appropriated these for his own text, in most cases (though not always) with an endnote in the form of "quoted in [Sonny Jim] 2013, p. xx." Fair enough. What concerns me is that he's also reproduced my interpretation of these passages as well, this time without acknowledgement. There are two paragraphs in particular where he closely summarizes arguments I make in the paper and this time there are no endnotes to tell the reader he got these arguments from somewhere else.

The problem for me is that I spent about 3 years researching this paper and I want to extend it into a book. Now that someone else (with a much higher profile than me) appears to be passing off my main arguments as though they're either his own or common knowledge, I'm less confident I can pitch the book project to an academic press.

So, where do I go from here? I'm not an historian, so I don't know, but ... is this the kind of practice that academic historians expect from popularisers? Is this even considered plagiarism in the history field, or is it just ignored or tolerated? As part of the publication process, I assigned copyright in the article to the university press that publishes the journal, if that's at all relevant. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!
posted by Sonny Jim to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not a historian, but I am an academic in another field with lots of experience of plagiarism, if it helps you get some perspective. I describe a common test for plagiarism as: "is the author presenting someone else's work as their own". The "work" could be actual text, but it could just as well be ideas or interpretation. So, in my (and many university's) opinion, this would constitute plagiarism, since they have taken your ideas without due credit.

However, in my experience, this would be considered an "edge case" by an academic misconduct panel - plagiarising ideas is always taken less seriously than plagiarising text verbatim (it shouldn't be, but that's the reality), and he does cite your work albeit not in the right place. The probable outcome in academia would be a slap on the wrist, and them being asked to add some kind of additional note or correction to acknowledge you properly, if that.

Sorry if that's not what you wanted to hear - if you pursue this formally (either with your publisher or theirs), it may not get very far, or just result in a footnote being added to an online version. You could try to turn this to your advantage and play up the fact that your work is so groundbreaking and seminal that your ideas are now accepted wisdom for the popularisers...
posted by firesine at 3:51 AM on March 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There are an awful lot of people in the content world generally who make a living simplifying, popularising, adapting etc content that is longer, more technical, drier, more complex and even less well written.

Because content has commoditised, the price for stuff is often low. And therefore to make money on producing content a writer may take a short cut. A tried and tested method is to use someone else's research. In order to skirt copyright you give some acknowledgement, paraphrase liberally but disguise to the reader how much a piece has borrowed from the original.

And so this has happened to you. The journalist has done just enough to put you in two minds about taking action and just enough to give himself or his publishers a first line of defence. It doesn't matter whether it would stand up in court. They know they have tons of options to remedy things before the very unlikely event it gets that far.

What you do depends on how much you want to make of it. If it were me, I would speak to my publisher and see if they wanted to intervene. They may do, but considering there is so little at stake relatively (sorry!) they may not. If they do not, you could take this on.

I would not deal with the journalist. They know what they have done and have done so consciously. I would expect them to give a half arsed apology at best and justify their actions because they acknowledged you as a source.

I would deal with the publisher. If they are reputable, they will have expected the journalist to have done their own research. They will have paid a fee that included the time to do this. They will not want someone accusing them of plagiarism, even if any legal threat was likely toothless (which I think it is in your case). You would probably be looking for an apology and clarification making clear the extent to which the article borrowed from your paper. Run your letter of complaint past someone neutral. You feel much more strongly about this than anyone else will and it would be natural for you to feel more indignant about it than anyone else.

If they are not reputable, then they'll do the same as the journalist. Hum and haw and maybe apologise but ultimately do nothing.

I should add that in my experience many, many journalists in national and trade press are notorious thieves and also extremely ungrateful for detailed assistance they get. Either they don't care or they foster the belief that everyone should be grateful for whatever exposure the journalist kindly bestows on them. As an example: some years back I submitted a 1,000 word piece on my company's behalf after a request from a industry leading, big name trade journal. It was published, with approximately three words changed, under a house journalist's name and passing reference added to our company's work. Of course we complained. But ultimately they didn't give much of a damn. We resolved not to work with them again. They no doubt just went off and screwed over some other mug.
posted by MuffinMan at 4:01 AM on March 4, 2014

Call your research misconduct office. They can ask the right questions to figure out whether this is misconduct, and will be ableto tell you what your options are. Some options, like going to the publisher, will carry more weight done by your institution rather than by you alone.
posted by Stacey at 4:05 AM on March 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Yes, this is the sort of practice that I, as an academic historian-ish, expect from popularisers. It's infuriating, but it's not generally actionable as plagiarism. It's partly the specific result of the demands of popular press editors, who discourage writers from being explicit about debates and ideas and instead encourage them to present an omnipotent narrator (e.g. they suggest you cut 'Professor So and so says this, but historian Y argues that' sort of constructs, which leaves you with nothing but the idea and a footnote).
This is an edgy case because of the lack of citations for the argument; if he got this through the University repository then I would go talk to those responsible for maintaining it/dealing with copyright about the possibility of asking for an extra footnote in further editions, but there's a balance here between getting what you're owed and getting known for kicking up a fuss, and they may advise against doing anything at all.

(The erasure of academic work in the popular sphere is a conversation for another time)
posted by AFII at 4:08 AM on March 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Research misconduct office? That's not a thing in any university I know. Vice President for research administration, sponsored research office, provost for research administration, IRB, etc. but in any case, such offices exist to police misconduct by researchers affiliated with your university, not to defend you from misconduct by outsiders.

But being plagiarized by someone outside your own university means no administrator at your university has any authority or standing to assist you. Complain to the plagiarist's publisher directly and threaten to publicize your comparison of the two works in question on your own blog or in Amazon reviews if this is a book.

Otherwise, let it go. The journalist is not competing directly with you and no one is going to care very much. Summarizing something in meticulous detail, and citing it, is at best an edge case and at worst not even slightly actionable.

The 28 people who will read your article, most of whom are on promotion committees, don't care as long as it's clear you wrote yours first.
posted by spitbull at 4:45 AM on March 4, 2014

Part of the problem with questions like these:

is this the kind of practice that academic historians expect from popularisers? Is this even considered plagiarism in the history field, or is it just ignored or tolerated?

is that it assumes the two of you live under the same rules. You don't. You're an academic, and he's a journalist/writer. He doesn't play by academic rules, and you don't play by the rules of journalism.

Did he do something wrong here? We don't know unless we see both documents. Is it worth asking someone at your university for advice? Sure, no harm in that. But make sure you go into that meeting remembering that you're talking about a journalist/writer who did something, not another academic.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 5:24 AM on March 4, 2014

Well, the thing is, even if it unambiguously *was* plagiarism (not copyright infringement), really the best you could hope for is to bring shame on the author or the publication/publisher. Plagiarism isn't a legal crime, it's a type of professional misconduct. And he's not in your profession. If he copied your words, the university press that owns your copyright might have a copyright case.

It seems like your main concern here is whether his work impacts the likelihood that your future work would get published. I think you need to ask a publisher about that.
posted by mskyle at 6:34 AM on March 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

When it comes to pitching publishers, would it be possible to turn this to your advantage? "Journalist [whoever] wrote an article in the [whatever] that closely referred to my work. The positive response to his article makes me believe a detailed, book-length look at the subject would be well received by the general public."
posted by Georgina at 6:38 AM on March 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Many universities (certainly not all) handle misconduct through the same office that handles other compliance issues - IRB, IACUC, COI, etc. I made the recommendation above because I work in such an office, and am aware of cases where we have defended our researchers against plagiarism by outsiders, and have been able to get some assistance from publishers when we contacted them as an institution, that the researcher alone had not been able to get.

That doesn't happen often, but it has happened here and I think it would be worth at least investigating whether your institution might have someone similar willing and able to help you with this.
posted by Stacey at 6:41 AM on March 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Although this may be common practice among popular writers they certainly aren't above reproach. What happened with Doris Kearns Goodwin is sort of a canonical example.
posted by telegraph at 7:45 AM on March 4, 2014

I'm curious that people don't think this is a big deal. If this individual has in fact stolen your work and your words (as it sounds like he has), then it's a big deal. Plagiarism absolutely violates standards of journalism integrity. I would seriously consider informing the publication that released the plagiarized piece because they ought to know. I'd be surprised if journalists don't face a certain level of scrutiny in their jobs, much as graduate student would come under serious review or face expulsion for academic dishonesty.

Not that I know much about much, but perhaps this might be a place to at least consider a lawyer? It sounds like this absolutely has an impact on your future earnings from your book.
posted by noonday at 2:09 PM on March 4, 2014

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