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Fiona Snyckers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Of Larceny, Pickpocketry and Wet Hens

I was madder than a wet hen this morning. I woke up to find that someone who follows me on Twitter had taken a series of my tweets and turned them into a column … WITHOUT ATTRIBUTION. Admittedly, he had added value to my original ideas and fleshed them out considerably, but still. How very dare he? When I moaned about this on Twitter, a clamour of voices invited me to name and shame the guilty columnist, which I declined to do. Now, several hours later, as I have subsided into being merely a somewhat damp hen, I still decline to do so.

I am not in the business of trashing reputations or throwing unsubstantiated accusations around. Because the problem with this kind of intellectual larceny is that it is virtually impossible to prove. You’ll notice I don’t use the word ‘plagiarism’. That’s because it’s not. Well, not quite. Plagiarism is a far more blatant lifting of original thought, (or indeed whole passages, right Darryl?) from an original source, without acknowledgement. This is a subtler process of pickpocketing someone else’s opinions and using them as the inspiration for your own writing. Absolutely nothing wrong with that, of course, PROVIDED you acknowledge the source of your ideas.

The problem is that the world of column-writing – especially online column-writing – has become so intensely competitive that columnists want to hog all the glory for themselves. They want to keep every scrap of the limelight on them, and pretend that the ideas they are spouting just popped sua sponte into their own brilliant minds.

Earlier today, during the worst of my sopping-wet-hen moments, I asked myself whether this is a male phenomenon. After all, when journalists have used my tweets in the past, WITH attribution, they have always been female. And the two occasions on which I’ve been turned upside down and shaken until all my intellectual small change fell out, the perpetrators have been male. Then I had a medicinal Gin-and-Tonic (I’m on holiday, okay?) and reminded myself that the most scrupulous tweet-borrower I know is in fact male. I’m talking about the revered editor of this very site, Ben Williams, who always attributes ideas and never ever fails to acknowledge a source. So let’s not tar all males with the same brush, ‘mkay?

When I expressed the intention of writing a blog about the attribution of sources in the electronic age, a tweeter by the name of Shelley Elk (See? Attribution!) sent me this link from Memeburn about what they’re teaching journalists at Harvard. Aside from the rather giggle-inducing notion of mid-career journalists solemnly attending ‘courses’ in Twitter and Facebook (hey, I use both without EVER having taken a course, and so does my aged auntie) the article also skims over the problems of teaching journalists to acknowledge their sources in the vast, amorphous world of electronic media. I remember that when the internet first really grew legs, many years ago, there was a panic among academics and school teachers about the apparently endless opportunities for plagiarism opening up for students. This panic subsided when it become apparent that teachers were quite as capable of conducting a simple Google search as their students.

But the advent of social media has opened up a whole ‘nother can of worms. Are tweets protected by copyright? What about Facebook status updates? What about tweets that have been retweeted so many times that the original source has been lost in the mists of time? And what about a Twitter discussion you followed, but did not take part in, and decided to recycle in column form for money? It seems these things are rather difficult to police.

I believe the only answer is for us all to start being more grown-up about this. Be MORE scrupulous about acknowledging your sources rather than less. Even if it was just some random FB status update you can’t quite track down at the moment, mention it and invite the author to jog your memory. It doesn’t make you less of a columnist to admit that you get your ideas from somewhere. It actually gives you an aura of integrity and honesty that money can’t buy – the kind of solid-gold rep that the editor of this site enjoys.

That’s worth a whole lot more than being considered a very clever boy indeed.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    December 19th, 2010 @00:53 #

    Great piece Hen er Fifi. The amazing thing is the persistence of the notion that text sent out into cyberspace is a great big buffet, with writers free to help themselves. I was fascinated by a parallel tale in Nov this year, sparked when a magazine editor purloined a recipe from a blog, and wrote a breathtakingly snotty mail when the original author challenged her. The whole thing went viral, suggesting that these questions hit a major nerve. Wiki's version of the story is rather dull, but there are a dozen good commentaries on the web:


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