I’ve been busy with workshops during these last few months, and I haven’t kept my blog up to date. I have, however, been making notes. The workshops have given me plenty to think about, and now, at last, to write about. Stand by!
Let’s start with a conference presentation – not one I presented, but one I attended. Two presentations, in fact.
The first presentation was on search tools and information sources, and there were three co-presenters. The first tool shown was WolframAlpha which, amongst other things, provides quick factual information about many subjects. I asked where Wolfram Alpha obtained its information; the presenters did not know, but agreed that one couldn’t really cite Wolfram Alpha as a source, any more than we can cite Google Images as a source.
The presentation next day was given by one of the three Wolfram Alpha presenters. Our presenter started off by giving us a TinyURL shortcut to her presentation. “Feel free to use it,” she said. “It’s there to share. You can even add your own name on each slide, if you want, I don’t mind.”
I went “Pftussss” – a sharp intake of breath, which was louder than I intended. Loud enough to get the presenter’s attention. “All except our plagiarism expert here,” she said.
That put me in my place.
The session was on one particular website. A few slides in, and she showed some multiple-choice questions asked in an international survey, and (1) charts illustrating the correct answers and (2) bar charts representing the percentage of respondents opting for each of the possible answers to each of the questions. As she spoke, the presenter made it clear that the questions were from the original survey, not her own work, and the data resulting from the survey were not hers either. However, she gave the impression, at least to me, that the charts and other illustrations were her own design, based on the data generated.
That is problematic. It is problematic on several counts.
For one, those charts and other illustrations were not hers. They had been copied, screen-grabbed and copied, directly from an authored pdf-format document to be found on the website she was demonstrating. There was, however, no attribution on the slides, just that verbal attribution to the site itself.
I hesitate to accuse anyone of plagiarism, including this presenter. However, her practice is less than helpful to anyone viewing the slides. They won’t necessarily be able to, or even feel the need to, go find the original on the original website. Bad practice, and bad role-modelling.
If I give you the TinyURL here, you’d be able to go to find her document yourself. You wouldn’t know who posted it, the presenter’s name does not appear. If you were to use her material, you wouldn’t know to whom you should give the credit. Never mind, she has given permission for viewers to take the material and use their own names. It’s theirs! It’s yours!
Only it isn’t.
What there is, for anyone who does add their own name, is a clear case of plagiarism. It wouldn’t be yours, would it?
What there is is a case for the original site to launch a breach of copyright suit.
What there is is your own integrity – and an awareness that you cannot take anonymous data and present it with any authority, even with second-hand permission; you would need to find an author and/or a source. The real author and the real source.
Which takes me to a final irony. Towards the end of the conference presentation, and possibly with a hat-tip to me and my question the day before, there is a slide which lists some of the sources from which the website gets its information, the data which informed the survey, and the data which inform the site as a whole. Not good enough, I feel.
Practice, not to be copied.