As science blogger, how to handle plagiarism & other text reuse issues


Free use image from Wikipedia

If you write about science on the web, chances are that your work has been used by someone else without your permission.

What can you or should you do about that if anything?

This re-use can range from what turn out to be appropriate occurrences to outright, harmful plagiarism. Just in the past few weeks I have had to deal with multiple, different instances of other websites using text from my blog posts without permission.

For example, when someone re-posts an entire post of yours without permission that’s not a good thing. That happened to me recently as it has many times in the past. Has that happened to you? What did you do?

Even if they cite you as the author of the work, such full-scale re-use of material without permission is not cool in my view. Some have argued that this kind of re-use (even without permission) of an entire piece constitutes “fair use“, but that’s a big stretch. Instead, it is likely a violation of copyright. Keep in mind that whatever original writing that someone does on the web is protected by copyright.

Of course things often get even more serious. So-called “scrapers” regularly troll the Internet for content to steal. They re-use it without attribution.

Individual websites also can take words from others without attribution and post it as if it were their own original content, sometimes with tiny changes to mask things. Yeah, that’s plagiarism and it is fairly rampant. This also happened recently to me.

What do to in such instances?

It depends.

If someone is appropriately quoting or excerpting relatively small parts of your work and especially if they link back to you, it’s positive. There’s a communal nature to the online science community and linking to each other is healthy. Permission isn’t an issue.

If someone posts an entire piece of yours without permission, even if they attribute it to you, my suggestion would be to contact them and ask them politely to only use an excerpt and to include a link to the original work. Doing those things is just being considerate and fair. Unfortunately, re-use of entire pieces without permission can happen so often that it might not be possible to follow up on every case.

On the other hand if someone has taken part of your writing such as a blog post and presented it as their own, then that is more serious. You should contact them, ask for a correction, and indicate that you don’t want to see it happening again. In theory such re-use could have been by mistake. Make them aware. You might get a positive response and an apology, but more likely you’ll get no reply or even a hostile reaction.

What to do in the latter case with a bad or no response? It’s really a matter of personal choice at that point. Ignore it? Talk to a lawyer? Blog about it?

If you are a scientist, for context how would you feel if someone took your words from an article that you published and republished it without attribution in their own article? What would you do? In principle, your words on the web are just as protected.

5 thoughts on “As science blogger, how to handle plagiarism & other text reuse issues

  1. In almost all cases, I just ignore plagiarism because most of the time it’s just junk and spam sites that copy text. As far as I can see no-one reads these copies, so I don’t think they’re doing any harm.

    I would only take action if the plagiarist was a writer or blogger with some kind of readership or reputation.

    Occasionally you get journalists who ‘base’ their stories rather closely on blog posts, but so long as they link to the posts I don’t really mind this. It’s lazy journalism but it doesn’t do me any harm.

  2. Paul:

    Oh no! I am trying to figure out my own blog, and can’t do better than you, so I decided that I will just copy yours…! (…For the humorless, this is a joke.)


  3. Hi Paul,

    I expect that people will do whatever they will do with whatever I put on the web. One would like to think that they will be fair — but, human nature being what it is, I don’t fuss about transgressions.

    It is quite common for even well-intentioned people to internalize the ideas/words of others as though they were their own — flattery of a sort.

    What annoys me is when people mangle my stuff. Everyone who has ever published anything has probably been burned by that, copyright or not.

    For myself, I only copy an entire article (as a footnote to my own material) if there is a good chance that the link will be volatile. Broken links really do bug me!

  4. I don’t bother with policing this stuff. It takes too much time and generally does not have an appropriate outcome. Broken links, however, are a big problem on the California Stem Cell Report since I link to material on the California stem cell agency Web site. They have had several redesigns of their site and have not maintained trails to their original postings. Thus many, many links are broken. Public agencies, however, have a responsibility to maintain their information in such a fashion that it is easily available almost in perpetuity.

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