If you wouldn’t cite it in a term paper, don’t copy from it for pay

I think Wikipedia is great. I could spend all day traipsing through obscure entries learning about this or that. It’s even useful, say when you’re writing about history as I tend to do here from time to time, in a couple of ways. For one thing, it’s a great source for images and maps that are free-license or fair use. But there’s more. Really well-sourced Wikipedia articles (presumably the more obscure the topic, the less likely people are making deliberately false edits on it) can point you to some article or book you might have missed or forgotten about, and can catch you if you’ve glossed over or forgotten about an important point or missed a major train of scholarly thought on a controversial topic. But the point is that you then go read those articles for yourself or research those bits of history or controversy for yourself. Wikipedia is also helpful when you want to drop in a link to an event, a war for example, and not just a particular aspect of that event. If I have a point that would be boosted by a link to something on “The Crimean War,” linking to the Wikipedia entry (assuming the point I’m trying to make is in there somewhere) is just as useful in my view as hunting the internet for a different general history of the Crimean War.

Anyway, that’s what I do here at this friendly blog, which it may surprise you to learn does not actually earn me any money. What I don’t do is verbatim copy from Wikipedia, or rely on it to the exclusion of any other source or my own knowledge. If I can’t contribute anything to a topic that I didn’t learn from Wikipedia, why would I go to the trouble of writing a piece as opposed to just saying “hey, go check out this cool thing I found on Wikipedia”? And, again, that’s my policy when I’m writing for what amounts to my own amusement.

So what the hell is going on when you’ve got everybody from real-deal New York Times reporters to mostly silly Buzzfeed listicle compilers just copying stuff from Wikipedia? I used to teach a course to undergrads who were writing their fourth-year theses, so part of the course dealt with research methods and plagiarism and what not. I always used to tell them that “Wikipedia is not a source,” which was intended to get a laugh because the idea that anybody would treat Wikipedia as a source for an academic paper just seemed utterly ridiculous to me. But if you wouldn’t rely on Wikipedia to write your thesis, and you shouldn’t, why would you rely on it for an article that you’re supposed to be writing professionally?

Worse, why would you ever basically copy straight from any source without attribution, which is what both Johnson and Vogel were caught doing? Even more basic than “Wikipedia is not a source” is the idea of “credit where credit is due,” which in writing means properly attributing your sources. I can’t believe that Carol Vogel got through journalism school, or art history school, or whatever she studied, without learning that. I can’t even believe that Benny Johnson got through whatever he studied without learning it. The fact that they lifted their material from Wikipedia only compounds the real offense, which was lifting somebody else’s work at all.

I don’t think either of them did what they did maliciously, but when you’re going through the motions of copying and pasting, or of retyping what you read in the Wikipedia entry, it’s hard to claim that you weren’t aware that you were doing it. Did they just forget to include a citation? The other thing I used to tell my students was that they should cite as they write, because people are forgetful and going back and citing things later is a recipe for disaster. I realize you can’t really footnote a newspaper article, but that’s why Vogel shouldn’t have copied verbatim or near-verbatim from anything to begin with. For Johnson, who did all his work online, how hard is it to include a link while you’re writing?

Maybe these folks need to go do another year of college before they’re allowed to work in journalism again.

Author: DWD

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