Six Simple Steps for Bloggers When Someone Plagiarizes Your Research

The Leach (Hirudo officinalis):The animal kingdom, arranged after its organization : forming a natural history of animals, and an introduction to comparative anatomy
by Baron Georges Cuvier, Edward Blyth et al; Published 1849

This article is not about dealing with the loser who copies your entire blog content and re-posts it on their website or blog. That problem is far easier to remedy than dealing with someone who uses pieces of your research and promotes it as their own. If you write previously unpublished, detailed, well documented history stories,  use of your hard-sought information WILL happen, sooner or later.

Stealing may be too harsh a word for copying other people’s research. After all, there is nothing new in the universe, is there? Leonardo Da Vinci used other people ideas, why not us? We blog because we want people to read our stories. We just would prefer that WE get the credit for our research, not that person who simply googled, read and then promoted it as their own. Of course they could say they have found this information independently.  “Credit” itself is like an elusive butterfly on the verge of extinction. The person who used your information probably didn’t say they discovered a piece of information, they just neglected to say where they learned about it.  Is this wrong, or just the norm?

Without proper attribution, the origin of images, text and music is quickly lost.  To rediscover the source is a bit like this diagram–terribly complicated and probably impossible. Diagram from Trigonometria BRITANICA: or The Doctrine of Triangles, In Two Books, by John Newton, M.A. and Henry Gelibrand

We live in a social media-governed world where people copy “stuff.” Text, photographs, bits of stories are copied and reused– every day, every minute, every second without giving credit. The popularity of Pinterest is an example of collections of this “stuff.” It all belonged to someone, a real person, once upon a time. That someone is now probably invisible and un-credited though they photographed it, painted it, wrote it. Do we always give the creator credit? Do we always take the time to learn where “stuff” comes from? Probably not. We could change that if we truly wanted to, one person at a time, starting with ourselves.

Historians have been copying each other’s work for centuries, often without attribution. Richard Wightman Fox is often-quoted from his article “A Heartbreaking Problem of Staggering Proportions,” as published in Vol 90, Issue 4 of The Journal of American History (March 2004). His article speaks about how history students spend countless hours rewording what other people have written about history, so that they can claim it as their own. He said something important to all of us: “since we historians are nonfiction writers who create texts, not paintings, photographs, or songs, we have the opportunity to do something novelists, artists, and musicians cannot ordinarily do. We can put the names of our colleagues or predecessors into our texts at no cost to either the originality or the dramatic force of our creations.”

I would like for you to consider for a moment, the last time you read a blog story where the author gave credit to one or more other researchers. It is rare I know. Did that sharing of their source make you feel that the story was less important or less interesting? Or instead, did you nod with approval that the writer had taken the time to acknowledge others. I tend with the second scenario. I agree fully with Richard Wightman Fox. This type of “acknowledgement journalism” is overdue. It is a win-win situation for everyone. Only the emotionally-needy, narcissistic, and knowledge-selfish will refuse to do it, because they want all the applause.

Instead of threatening to string up the research thief by their thumbs, set a professional example. Graphic from “Recollections of a Rebel Surgeon (and other sketches) or In The Doctor’s Sappy Days,” by F.E. Daniel M.D., Illustrated, 1901, page 121

With this in mind, I will now give credit where it is due for this story.  The best advice I have recently read about how to react to plagiarism comes from another Blogger, Erin Blakemore at Creativelive blog, in the article “What To Do When Someone Steals Your Idea: React Like a Professional.” You should read the entire story, since I won’t be repeating it here other than the first piece of advice. Take a deep breath first, and don’t cave into impulsive reaction–that is your best tact, or as Erin says “Stop, Drop and Don’t React.” Take plenty of time to think about what further steps you might take. If you find yourself getting angry, step away and do something that helps cool you off.

Before you can understand any advice, you need to understand the problem. Your research was incredible! You investigated a person or event and discovered information that had eluded previous seekers. You methodically compiled, composed and included everything in a story on your blog, with footnotes of your sources. You felt good about the result, really good. You might even have felt a bit of amazement at your own abilities and skill in this case. Hold that thought and that feeling. That pleasurable sensation is probably why you blog in the first place. That wonderful rush of satisfaction when you know you’ve broken through the information barrier of research to discover the truth is partly what drives you to write.

But hey, while you were busting your butt to research and write, someone, probably more than one person, “out there,” … yes somewhere in the blogging or history universe was writing a book, or a news article about the same thing. They’d been looking for information but their research skills were lacking, or they would rather boast about how they were the local history guru without actually doing the work. They are the google-Kings and Queens of Historyland. Maybe they called the local newspaper and asked to be quoted in an upcoming story, and included specific information found easily in your research story.  All they had to do was reword it a little bit, and it was theirs.

I suspect you’ve met at least one person that fits this description if you’ve been blogging for any length of time. Like a pond leech or a vampire bat, the plagiarist looks bloated–fat with knowledge. They got that way by sucking the blood from other people’s stories and research.

I am not talking about ‘blog fodder.’  This is a term used by bloggers to refer to ideas they get from another person’s blog story.  You might read, for example, a blog story about WWI nurses, so you research and write a new, independent and separate story about the actual hospitals in Europe during that time frame.  This example is inspiration and not content theft.  It would be the polite thing to refer back to your inspiration source, but you are not a leech if you don’t.  If you use actual details of the nurses only found in that story, information that was difficult to find after hours of looking in rare sources–that is another matter.

There is no typical history research thief. In this sketch the creature’s habits are obvious by the huge overdeveloped ears, tiny brain, bind eyes and blood sucking mouth. Graphic of the Vampire Bat; Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Vol 69, City of Washington. Published by the Smithsonian Institution. 1921.

Plagiarism, or using others research without credit, happens everywhere, and it is why historians often hold their research close to the hip. Either because they have taken other’s ideas and feel guilty, or because an author has been traumatized by unauthorized use of their work, many history writers are not particularly good at sharing.

I’ve met a few amazing New Hampshire historians who were open, giving, and wanting history to be “out there” for everyone to read and understand. This sharing was more important to them than hiding it because they were “writing a book” (to be published some unspecified day, if ever).

Sharing was more important to them than worrying about whether I might use one of their ideas. Because of this, I buy their books, I attend their lectures, I support their work, I credit them for their help. As for the others–the leeches–I am only tempted to poke them with a stick.

Now, finally we get to the advice portion of this story, on how to handle situations of history plagiarism.  This applies to writing about history and genealogy on a blog, web site or in published media (whether electronic or the old-fashioned paper). I am sure that you will read contradictory advice, but I am sticking with these 7 items as the best to follow.   If you have had personal experience I hope you will add a comment to this story.

1. Be better than your plagiarists. Keep researching, writing and sharing. Perhaps expand on that ‘stolen’ story by writing a second story about the same topic. Retain your notes and resources. People who “fake it” eventually are shown up for who they really are when they can’t provide their research notes beyond your footnotes. The person who used your information may have your blog story details as reference, but not your personal notes about research. It is still YOUR story and you obviously published first.

2. Be politely public about you being the source. Make sure the newspaper that printed the news story referring to your research material is aware of your article. Most newspapers have web sites with the ability to post using Facebook. Don’t be recriminatory. Praise their article and let them know you have an earlier detailed story about the same topic. Share the link to your story.

3. Become a role model for other history writers. Give credit all the time–to those who helped you research details (librarians, archivists, the cemetery employee who looked up a grave site, etc), photographers, and whoever was involved even in the smallest way to your story. If your spouse watched the kids so you could write, acknowledge that too! Your actions are a virtual poking of that leech with a huge stick.

4. Avoid future plagiarism of your blog content (at least lessen the incidents) by protecting your content a little better. You can disable mouse clicks on your blog, and use a watermark on your photographs. WordPress, for example, offers add on widgets that will automatically create watermarks for you without altering the original graphic.  You can also add a widget to automatically perform a search for plagiarism (people copying your work, word for word).  Make sure your copyright notice is clear and easily found.

5. Offer to speak about the topic, or how you researched the story at a library, historical society, or other public group. This should provide you with the acknowledgement and praise that you may feel you lost when your work was reused and not credited.

6. Be at peace with yourself. You can do this by frequently reminding yourself why you blog. Write down (yes, with a pen and a piece of paper) why you compose history stories in the first place. “I write because I love history and I honor my Dad and Grandmother. I believe that if we don’t share history stories, it is as if it didn’t happen.” (That is my reason especially when it comes to women’s history). Tape, tack or post this note somewhere you can easily see it. It is said that plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery. Learn to view incidents when they occur in that light. Find a reason to laugh about it (as I did when choosing the graphics in this article).

7. Support those who help you. Is there a person or a library you constantly call for help, or a historical society who has helped with your research? Is there a newspaper archive that often provides you with technical evidence. Is there a blog or web site that consistently gives you something to think about and inspires you to write. You can encourage both nonprofit and commercial groups to continue their work by giving back to them in the shape of memberships, donations, subscriptions, and collaboration.

NOTE TO COMMENTERS: This is a hot topic I realize.  Please keep any comments polite, constructive and to the point.  You are free to disagree, however bullying will not be tolerated and such remarks will not be published.

EDITORS NOTE: A Genealogy Blogger friend of mine, Ewan Minnebruggen just informed me that today is World Intellectual Property Day.  Fitting indeed.

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17 Responses to Six Simple Steps for Bloggers When Someone Plagiarizes Your Research

  1. What a great post, Janice. I realize, since I started blogging, my research and writing have improved – maybe even enough to have someone want to “borrow” something. Just in case, I need to go back and add sources and watermark photos used in early posts. I don’t have research notes for older pieces. I’ve recently started using the Research Manager of my genealogy program to keep track of all research, positive and negative, when doing genealogy research and writing my blog posts. I know it’s something I should have been doing from the beginning. Hopefully, it will not happen but at least I have most of your tips in place. Other than the right click thing since my blog is on free WP version.

    • Janice Brown says:

      Cathy, I’ve done the same thing. Even though 99% of the graphics and photographs I have used in my 11 years of blogging are mine, a few were taken from copyright free places, and I didn’t state where. Since I have a widget that lets me know when links go “bad,” I check out those old stories at that time (to remove the bad link) and I also review it for content and photographs, updating, relabeling. Some day, maybe, I will get caught up!

  2. This is a thoughtful and well-developed discussion of a very important topic. I support your position 100%. In addition to violating the moral imperative of giving credit to others for their work, plagiarism undermines the creation, communication, and evaluation of new knowledge, to everyone’s detriment.

    • Janice Brown says:

      Thank you Liz for your comment. I hope that people who read this go beyond the idea that this issue doesn’t affect them, to considering how their own sharing of information or photographs impacts on the person who first created them.

  3. Amy says:

    Great post, Janice. I do try to give credit to those whose research or photographs or stories I use. Maybe it’s because I taught copyright for so many years. Of course, copyright and plagiarism are not the same. Many people get confused on this. Since copyright law does not protect research or facts, just the way they’ve been expressed, people believe that by rewording another’s work without attribution they are doing nothing wrong. Just because it doesn’t violate copyright law, however, does not mean that it’s otherwise okay. Failing to give attribution to someone else’s research or ideas is passing off their work as yours and is a violation of academic integrity and, in some instances, of the law.

    • Janice Brown says:

      Thank you Amy. And yes this story has more to do with someone using another’s research and passing it off as their own, rather than copyright violation. This sort of thing happens more than people realize, and in fact on many social media sites I’ve seen people state that if its on the internet it is copyright free and can be used. That is just not true at all.

      • Amy says:

        Yep, tell me about it. I heard it all the time. Once a student copied language out of an old book for a paper and did not put it in quotes or give attribution. His defense? The book was in the public domain and therefore no longer protected by copyright. The Honor Committee and the faculty were not impressed.

  4. Melinda Johnson says:

    Great post! I love reading about NH stories, since I was born and raised there. I’m sorry if you’ve had your research plagiarized recently. Great tips about watermarking, too! And I have noticed how very careful you are about credited your sources. I try to do that as well, or at least include a link to the original article (I just have a family blog, nothing big, but I’m talking more of when I post on Facebook). I do post articles/websites directly to Facebook, too. I will definitely be sharing this! Keep up the great work and thanks for the reminder!

  5. Michael says:

    I took your advice and added a watermark to a photograph I used in my blog post this week.

    I’m of two minds on the subject: on the one hand, I don’t really mind sharing the image and want it out there for others (particularly his many descendants), but I do worry about misattribution (someone mistakenly labeling the photo as another individual). Once a mistake is online it’s nearly impossible to undo as it takes on a life of its own.

    • Janice Brown says:

      What you just said is exactly the truth, about mislabeling. It is like a rumor, once it gets started you can’t stop it. Someone claimed my great-grandfather photographs and all claiming he was in two distant states at the same time having a huge number of children. It just wasn’t true and now my tree is private unless I know someone is related. Its said I felt I had to do that.

  6. Several months ago I discovered someone had taken a blog post I wrote about my father, altered the wording just enough to disguise the fact that it was written by one of his children, and apparently submitted it to the creator of my father’s Find A Grave memorial for posting. I’m quite certain it was not the memorial creator who took it from my blog, because several of my personal family photos from the same blog post were added to the memorial, without any attribution, by a third party who has no known connection to my family. One of the photos had also been added to my mother’s memorial. The memorial creator at my request removed the plagiarized bio from the memorial (and transferred both memorials to me), but the person who posted the photos did not respond to an email and I had to get Find A Grave to take the photos down.

  7. Howland Davis says:

    I am still of the old school and like to read long interesting blogs on paper (I know, I am bad). Unfortunately I do not appear to be able to print this to be read for comfortably in an easy chair, etc.

    • Janice Brown says:

      Mr. Davis, apologies. I agree that the print out of stories on my blog end up being a bit wonky with multiple pages, and with the headers and footers repeated. Sorry about that. A blog is generally created to be read using an electronic medium. It is possible to print it out using either the PRINT icon, or by the File > Print option on your computer, but as I mentioned it won’t be a one page, clean and simple result.

      • Howland Davis says:

        Janice – I tried to print or save and a box came up saying “Alert – Copy is protected!” with a pink background.

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