Plagiarism and Online Reputation

In the past few days, two plagiarists that I’ve reported on have written me and asked for the removal of articles containing their name. Both have very similar stories, that the articles are hurting their reputation on the Web and that the prevalence of their plagiarism-related stories in the search engines have made their professional and personal lives difficult.

I am sympathetic to their plights. In both cases the plagiarism incidents are relatively old, six months and over a year respectively, and in both cases the plagiarist has apologized and moved on. Yet, it’s obvious that plagiarism has long-term consequences, especially when one attaches their name to it.

Elsewhere on the Web, there are calls for “Internet reputation” systems that let users degrade and shame bloggers and Webmasters that are accused of plagiarism. The idea is that, by offering a means to let others know that a blogger is guilty of plagiarism, they will trust him or her less and that, in turn, will motivate them to not plagiarize or stop doing so.

However, as the recent my inbox has recently shown, even the informal reputation system that exists on the Web can have some pretty dire consequences.

This all begs the question, where does reputation fit into the battle against online plagiarism and how do we best use it to bring plagiarism to an end?

Shame on You

There is little doubt that shame can be an effective tool in dealing with plagiarism. Even in a society where “copyright” has become an ugly word, there is still no love for plagiarists as it is viewed as both dishonest and an affront to the ethical code of the Web.

Though paying for content may be old hat in the new Web, plagiarism is still a faux pas. Giving credit where credit is due is still a requirement for doing business on the Web.

Since no one wants to be called a plagiarist, the fear of being identified one is a pretty powerful motivator not to engage in it, just ask any journalist. In the same vein, public discovery after an act of plagiarism has taken place is often a strong motivation to stop doing it and to make things as right as possible.

Many people know this, if nothing else about plagiarism, and they take advantage of this whenever they discover theft of their work, often times posting to their blog about it, digging up personal information on the plagiarist and generally trying to expose the person behind the act.

Often times, this works very well. Successful plagiarism requires that the public be unaware of the misuse. Once it’s discovered, the plagiarist is trapped by their own lies and can gain no benefit from the act itself. Most of the time, the outing of a plagiarist is the end of the road for him or her.

But despite the fact that shame is a reflex for many who find their works stolen, it is a risky move for many reasons. Also, most likely, it would not be an effective long term solution on the Web due to many problems with using it.

Losing the Shame Game

In the short term, for resolving ongoing plagiarism incidents, shaming has several key problems:

  • Human Error: As Rob Scoble found out when he accused Elliott Back of plagiarism, it’s easy to make a mistake and point the finger at the wrong person. Not only does this cause a major embarrassment to both parties, but it can also open the door for potential defamation lawsuits.
  • Mobs Can Go Too Far: Some people aren’t content merely knowing that someone is a plagiarist. It is easy for angry mob to take things too far. This can include hurling death threats, harassing the suspected plagiarist and hacking their server or computer. These violations of the law could come back to haunt the person making the accusations if it can be shown he or she encourage the act or acted negligently.
  • Some Plagiarists Don’t Care: Some plagiarists simply do not care if the world knows who they are. Many, such as scrapers, will relish any and all attention they can get, including attempts to shame them.

Of course, even if shame has problems in the short term, many feel it has potential long term benefits, acting more as a deterrent than as a means of stopping ongoing cases. However, even there lies several problems:

  • Identities Are Cheap: For reputation to have an effect on someone on the Web, it has to be tied to their identity. Unfortunately, identities are easy to create on the Web, usually as easy as setting up a new email and new IM names. There’s nothing to stop a shamed plagiarist from simply starting over. Though some companies are trying to change that, no smart plagiarist would subject themselves to such a rigorous identification process.
  • No Central Service: As of right now, there is not central service for handling blogger reputation. There are many that a large number of bloggers use, such as MyBlogLog and Technorati, but no one universal service. This makes looking up and verifying information difficult.
  • Ripe for Abuse: Any system that makes it easy to dismember someone’s reputation will be abused at some point. In a worst case scenario, a plagiarist could abuse the system to make the original author look like the copycat. Monitoring and safeguarding this system against abuse would be extremely taxing and nearly impossible.

Though a reputation system might not be a wholly bad idea if properly executed, these hurdles can not be trivially solved at this time. Also, since such a system would not be mandatory (even passing a law would not affect all countries nor motivate all users to participate) many would just opt out of it and avoid the risk.

Only the most foolish of plagiarists would expose themselves so openly to public scorn and contempt. After all, in the digital age, it’s not a matter of if a plagiarist gets caught, but when. Believe it or not, most plagiarists, deep down at least, know that before they begin.

Conclusions

All of this brings me back to the two plagiarists mentioned above. They want their names removed from this site and I have been debating my next step over the weekend.

In both cases my story came well after others broke it for me. In fact, before naming someone a plagiarist I try follow journalism rules and demand both conclusive proof and at least two sources. It means that I’m late to many stories, including the Kaavya Viswanathan scandal, but I feel it’s my responsibility.

Also, in both cases, my stories were far less biased and hostile than most others on the Web. My intent was never to shame, but to report the news as it was happening. Those stories were, and still are, an accurate retelling of the facts.

However, neither plagiarist disputes the facts, they merely wonder if they should be forced to pay for it on into eternity. Though removing their names from my site would not fix their reputation, other sites that rank higher still retell the stories with full names intact, it might be a step. Neither has caused any problems (that we know of) since their original incident.

So I am actively seeking council. Should I redact their names from the post or keep them up? Is the potential benefit gartered from removing the full names worth removing an element many would consider critical to the story?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I am eager to hear what others think. So feel free to leave me a comment or send me an email with your thoughts.

I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

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