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Yes, Copying From Wikipedia Is Plagiarism
January 25, 2024

Yes, Copying From Wikipedia Is Plagiarism

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Is Copying From Wikipedia Plagiarism? The Answer Is Incredibly Simple., The question of whether Neri Oxman’s Wikipedia use is plagiarism has a pretty simple answer., Is copying from Wikipedia plagiarism?

Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s information ecosystem.

Wikipedia describes plagiarism as ‘the representation of another person’s language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions as one’s own original work.’ The basic principle is that authors should give credit for something that they did not themselves produce. Sounds simple, right? Not something that could trigger a slew of angry op-ed pieces and inflame the social media discourse, right?

Wrong. Across the business and academic worlds, plagiarism is the ‘gotcha’ issue of the age. Although it’s worth reading the full play-by-play from MediaDownloader’s own Nitish Pahwa, here is a high-level, Wikipedia-style summary of recent events: Bill Ackman, the billionaire hedge fund manager and well-known critic of DEI programs, fought for months to oust Claudine Gay, Harvard’s first Black president. According to Ackman, Gay failed to sufficiently protect Jewish students on Harvard’s campus in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks and subsequent campus protests. In December, Gay appeared together with the presidents of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania for a congressional hearing about antisemitism, after which Ackman joined the chorus of critics saying that Gay failed to show sufficient ‘moral clarity’ on the issue.

But Ackman went further when he circulated a story to his 1.1 million followers on X that Gay had plagiarized up to 40 passages in her past academic work. Ackman tweeted that Gay had a ‘serious plagiarism issue‘ and suggested that an ordinary student would be expelled for similar behavior. Although Harvard’s governing board initially stood by Gay, it changed its mind following intense public pressure. On Jan. 2, Gay resigned, saying that stepping down was in the best interests of the university.

Two days later, Business Insider reported that its investigative team had found numerous instances of plagiarism in the doctoral dissertation of Ackman’s wife, Neri Oxman, formerly a tenured professor of design at MIT. In addition to copying from fellow scholars and her academic mentee, BI noted 15 instances in which Oxman copied sentences and whole paragraphs from Wikipedia without providing any attribution. For instance, Oxman copied hundreds of words from the Wikipedia entry on ‘Weaving’ without adding quotation marks. (To conduct its analysis, BI used archived versions of Wikipedia to review the exact language that appeared on the site in 2010, when Oxman published her dissertation.)

Since BI published its report, critics have claimed that the story is a tit-for-tat response to Ackman’s own plagiarism charges against Gay. That’s almost certainly true, although an internal review nonetheless found that the article was ‘accurate and well documented’ with ‘no unfair bias.’ Nevertheless, Ackman has threatened to sue BI and its related corporate entities, in what may well become the next example of billionaires trying to punish the free press for unflattering coverage.

For purposes of this specific Source Notes column, it’s perhaps best to park some issues and instead focus on a single thread: Is it really plagiarism to copy from Wikipedia without providing credit?

‘The answer is always the same: yes. You can use it, but you have to cite it because you didn’t write it,’ said Susan Blum, a professor at the University of Notre Dame whose scholarship has focused on plagiarism and educational anthropology. The concept of plagiarism emerged with the commercialization of print in the 18th century—the same period in which the concepts of individual authorship and copyright were being developed. In the modern university context, citing the source is a matter of both academic integrity and fundamental fairness. ‘If a student copies something that they found somewhere, then in the currency of academia, they’re getting credit for something that they didn’t actually produce,’ Blum said.

While Oxman herself has admitted that she should have used quotation marks and has apologized for the mistakes, Ackman has attempted to deflect the charges against his wife, tweeting that Wikipedia is somehow exceptional as an ‘open source platform’ and that, therefore, copying from it should not count as plagiarism.

But that’s simply not true. Joseph Reagle, a professor at Northeastern University and co-editor of the book Wikipedia @ 20, said there are two overlapping and complementary frameworks involved: the legal framework of copyright, and the academic integrity issue of plagiarism. Legally, Wikipedia allows users to copy, modify, or publish Wikipedia content if the user attributes the source and shares the result under the same terms of its Creative Commons Attribution–ShareAlike license. At the same time, academic conventions require that scholars attribute others’ ideas or prose via citation or quotation marks. ‘This is both an infringement of Wikipedia’s copyright and academic plagiarism,’ said Reagle, pointing to Page 81 of Oxman’s thesis, where she used over 200 words verbatim from the Wikipedia article on ‘Weaving,’ without attribution or quotation.

More recently, Ackman has put forward other defenses for the court of public opinion. On Jan. 9, he tweeted that his wife’s behavior should be excused based on the timing: Oxman wrote her dissertation in 2009, but MIT’s academic integrity policy did not specifically mention Wikipedia until 2013. ‘That argument by Ackman is frankly absurd,’ wrote Molly White, a prominent Wikipedian and cryptocurrency skeptic, who posted a popular video response for the billionaire investor. Even though the 2009 MIT policy did not specifically mention Wikipedia, it nonetheless discouraged copying passages of text without attribution. In other words, the blanket rule of giving credit where it’s due covered all of this before the policy mentioned Wikipedia specifically.

It’s worth considering why an academic in Oxman’s position might be reluctant to cite Wikipedia in their scholarly work. Although the encyclopedia’s reputation has certainly improved throughout the years, the site does not have a formal review process, and the open-editing framework can allow for errors to be introduced. (To be fair, vandalism seems to be caught quite quickly these days.) Within the academy, it’s considered a bit lazy for a scholar to cite any encyclopedias, including Wikipedia, which are considered to be indirect, tertiary sources rather than direct sources of information. ‘An academic probably shouldn’t be citing Encyclopedia Britannica either,’ said Blum.

Then again, Reagle suggested, the media should be more precise with its language on this issue. Reporting that either Gay or Oxman ‘plagiarized’ their dissertation implies that they stole the central ideas that appear in the published versions. ‘I don’t think this is the case,’ Reagle said. ‘Instead, their dissertations contain plagiarized prose. This is a lesser but still significant infraction.’

One reason for the apparent spike in plagiarism scandals is the increased availability of plagiarism detection tools like Turnitin and iThenticate, which scan from billions of webpages and databases. But these tools are also prone to give false positives, meaning that a human sleuth must go back and inspect a match. That doesn’t bode well for MIT’s faculty, a group that Ackman has promised to target with a broad plagiarism investigation. Ultimately, MIT scholars may be forced to waste large amounts of time defending plagiarism charges that it took the A.I. merely seconds to ‘detect.’

Blum reminds readers that every generation has its plagiarism scandals, and pointed to the example of Doris Kearns Goodwin, a reporter who in 2002 was removed from the Pulitzer board and PBS News Hour over findings of plagiarism. There is even a Wikipedia article, titled ‘Plagiarism from Wikipedia,’ that cites several notable instances ranging from primatologist Jane Goodall to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul. (At press time, Oxman’s name appears about two-thirds of the way down the list.)

Still, there’s a cynical spirit to the latest plagiarism charges. In an interview last week with Andrew Ross Sorkin of CNBC, Ackman suggested that the plagiarism issue was mostly just his tool for ousting Gay—not something that he previously had strong feelings about. ‘I reposted these findings [of alleged plagiarism] because, at that point, I was happy for her to leave for any reason,’ Ackman said. ‘I’d failed to convince this board on leadership, on moral clarity, on antisemitism on campus.’

In other words, Ackman was trying to find any reason to push Gay out. If the plagiarism charges hadn’t stuck, he and his team would have continued hunting through Gay’s social media posts and academic record, trying to find grounds for dismissal. Now that Oxman has been accused of similar behavior, Ackman has somewhat changed his tune, tweeting, ‘Some plagiarism arises from being human,’ and that his wife is ‘intensely human, and she makes mistakes as we all do.’

But it doesn’t take an experienced Wikipedia editor to detect this quick slip from moral clarity to moral relativism. Sadly, none of the loudest voices in these scandals seem particularly concerned with shoring up academic integrity. And that’s maybe why the situation appears so bleak. The plagiarism war cannot be resolved because the parties care only about their side winning.


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