A strange ‘referrer’ popped up on my stats page a day or two ago. So, intrigued, I hopped on over to the link for a look. It was a bulletin board called Skyscraper City. I’d not heard about them before.
I had a look at the particular thread that was referring back to my blog, and saw that it was all about the Green Point Urban Park Initiative. The forum moderator, Mo Rush, had borrowed some of my photos of the new Cape Town stadium and its surroundings.
I had recently written a post about the new Green Point Urban Park, which is still being landscaped and ‘beautified’ in preparation for the FIFA 2010 Football World Cup starting in South Africa on 11 June this year.
Although I am thrilled that someone thought they were nice enough photos to borrow, it would have been even nicer if he had dropped me a line or left a comment on my blog to tell me. Not because of copyright infringements or anything like that, because he did kindly credit my blog and my photos fortunately do contain a reference back to my blog, but merely out of old-fashioned courtesy.
As it is, I’m left feeling a little… hm… ambivalent.
I mean, I do realise that everything I publish on the blog, or anywhere else for that matter, is in the public domain and no longer “belongs” to me as such. So I really shouldn’t be surprised, or annoyed, or aggrieved when my words or images suddenly appear on another website. Perhaps I should feel strangely pleased?
And yet, I do still feel an emotional attachment to the photos I take and the text I write, probably because it is nonetheless a kind of diary, albeit a very public kind of online diary.
I thus began to ponder my own reaction.
I have been proofreading and editing students’ dissertations, primarily postgraduate but also undergraduate, for the last 15 years. It’s what I do. Over the years, as more and more students have become internet-savvy, however, I’ve noticed a definite increase in the more obvious forms of plagiarism.
For instance, a Master’s level student (and sometimes, horrifyingly, even a Doctoral student) will sometimes send me a draft thesis where I am preeeeetty sure that sections of it have been copied verbatim from the internet. I can usually tell, because the style of writing has suddenly changed, or because there are no obvious errors in spelling, punctuation or grammar. The most obvious giveaway is when the actual typographical style of the text changes, i.e. it’s a different type of font, the letters are a different size, or it even says ‘Webformat’. Yes, that still happens.
Usually, I will copy the entire suspect phrase into Google; and, more often than not, it will lead me to the original source website. Furthermore, I will usually find a whole lot MORE phrases “borrowed” from the same source.
Now this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, if the student had bothered to use quotation marks or indicated the author’s name or at least included the URL. But sometimes they just don’t. I don’t know whether they do this deliberately, or carelessly, or out of laziness, or because they expect me to rewrite it in my own words for them, or because they are just plain ignorant.
When I confronted a student whose draft thesis consisted almost entirely of copied-and-pasted, spliced-together passages from the internet – and other sources I couldn’t trace, he freely admitted that he had done so. He said he didn’t have time to write the thesis himself. He had no guilty conscience and felt no remorse. In fact, he expected me to rewrite it for him, because I was an ‘editor’ after all. Oh, and the document was twice as long as it was supposed to be, so he expected me to halve it in length. Oh, and to summarise the important ideas too, so that he could use them in his conclusion, which he hadn’t written yet.
Once I’d picked myself up off the floor, I terminated our working relationship with immediate effect.
Regardless of the reason, as any lecturer will tell you, this is blatant plagiarism. The student is passing off someone else’s ideas as their own. It’s not only unethical but illegal, and – when discovered to have been deliberate – it will lead to the student’s expulsion from the university. And so it should.
I’m often confronted by ethical questions like these in the course of my work. As a result, when I borrow ideas or images from someone in my own writings, I make an effort to acknowledge them (at least when I can find the source!).
It’s a way of saying thank you, and honouring someone else’s creative efforts.
And perhaps that is why this little episode of my pictures suddenly appearing somewhere else has pushed my buttons a little.
How do you feel about your own blog? Do you get all het-up when someone pinches a particularly clever idea or a really pretty photo? Or do you let it all go out into cyberspace, as soon as you hit that ‘Publish’ button?
I’m really curious to hear your thoughts.