After attending the Digital Academic event in Warwick on 23 March, on behalf of Piirus, I reflected on one of the conversations relating to plagiarism. Should researchers worry about plagiarism, if they begin to blog? Here are my thoughts on three important aspects of this concern:
1. Hey, that was my idea!
There are academics who would not put their ideas into a blog post, because releasing them into the open is to run the risk that others will get a journal article or book out on the ideas before they do. And its the journal articles and books that are the real currency of academic reputation, not blog posts. The argument against this concern is that a scholarly idea would be based upon substantial research: how could others re-do your research and publish before you? But there are times (perhaps discipline dependent) when a particular phrase or way of interpreting known research is what really makes a research output “zing”, and others could steal such a phrase or perspective.
Other researchers take the view that, if you blogged your idea, then you already claimed it as your own, so blogging is actually protection against plagiarism. This is great in theory: it’s publicly seen to be yours and so not even those with low moral standards would risk their reputations by plagiarising it. And if they did, you can prove that the material was yours first, with the date of your blog post’s publication.
Another reason to blog your ideas first, are apocryphal tales of papers languishing in peer review for just long enough for the referee to get their own paper on the same theme published. A quick blog post about your recent submission to a journal could be in your best interests!
However, we often say in English that “great minds think alike”, so in a case of apparent plagiarism, it might be just that someone else happened on the same idea. Your complaint that it is plagiarism might never be heard, or might be seen as sour grapes over what is mere bad luck. If you never let your idea out in the first place, you could at least be sure in such a scenario that it was just bad luck. On the other hand, if you blogged your idea then perhaps the person who stumbled on it too would get in touch and together you could create a richer, collaborative research output. Perhaps!
I can only conclude from these perspectives and scenarios that reaching the right audience at the right time is really crucial, and how you choose to do this will be a personal and discipline-specific decision. This is nothing new, but now there is the blog as a possible channel too. For some authors the only way to reach the right audience is in traditional journals, so those “zing” ideas are omitted from their blog, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t blog too! Maybe they could use a blog to promote a paper or book after publication. Blogs can be a great way to provide “teaser” content for a book, to promote it, if your publisher approves.
2. Traditional publishers can provide protection
Some authors feel safer when their output is taken on by an established organisation, rather than releasing their work in what is essentially self-publishing through a blog. Even if you could prove that someone has plagiarised your work (from a blog, a journal article, a conference paper or any source), then you would need the scholarly community to recognise that someone else had committed bad practice, to get any kind of redress. To achieve that recognition could take considerable energy, time and resources to even attempt to achieve.
If your idea was first published by a society or publisher then they might have processes and resources with which to negotiate with the producer of the plagiarising article, and so provide you with support in your complaint. It is possible, but of course not guaranteed that you will find this supportive: your interests and the publisher’s interests might not coincide.
A case of plagiarism may also be a breach of copyright, and you may have the option of engaging a lawyer to defend your copyright. But remember that copyright law is all about the right to make money from your intellectual output. Perhaps a publisher will protect your work by way of protecting their own income: they will certainly understand commercial aspects, but of course their interests and yours might differ.
3. Rejected for self-plagiarism
It could happen: your journal article is submitted to the most prestigious journal in your field and you get a rejection because substantial chunks of the the content is found to appear elsewhere. Or perhaps worse: your article is published but then retracted as it is recognised as a redundant publication, with content that has previously been published. What a mess!
Of course, this regrettable situation could happen from one journal article to the next and not only from blog content. In fact, if your blog is aimed at a different audience, then you’re less likely to inadvertently repeat phrases in what amounts to self-plagiarism than when writing traditional outputs. There is also always the option of saving your blog post for after the publication has come out.
The risk of plagiarism from others reading your blog post is no worse than when you have a conversation with someone at a conference, and in fact openness can lead to collaborations and other benefits, which is why that conference conversation might have happened in the first place. The risk of plagiarism is one that you need to weigh for yourself, and as the speakers at the Digital Academic event described, blogging brings opportunities that traditional publications alone might not do, so that risk might be one worth taking.