Skip to content
Jul 31 / King Kaufman

Wikipedia plagiarism in the news a good reminder to attribute everything

Events in the U.S. media in the past week make this a good time for a reminder: Copying from Wikipedia is just like copying from anything or anybody else. The source doesn’t matter—a news story, Wikipedia, a press release, a crowdsourced site like Yahoo Answers. If you didn’t write it yourself, you need to attribute it.

Otherwise, it’s plagiarism, and Bleacher Report’s policy on plagiarism is unambiguous: Zero tolerance.

At the end of last week Buzzfeed fired political writer Benny Johnson when it was first discovered that he had parroted Wikipedia in a post, then Buzzfeed’s investigation “found 41 instances of sentences of phrases copied word for word from other sites,” according to editor Ben Smith’s letter to readers.

Then this week FishbowlNY, citing a “tipster,” showed how New York Times writer Carol Vogel’s lede on a story about an exhibition of Renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo’s paintings was lifted nearly word for word from Wikipedia.

The Times eventually rewrote the lede and appended an editor’s note to Vogel’s story, and public editor Margaret Sullivan weighed in:

At least one prominent writer doesn’t think what happened at BuzzFeed is such a big deal. Gene Weingarten at The Washington Post wrote this week that when material is simply boilerplate and being used for quizzes and listicles, it hardly matters. “To be guilty of theft,” he writes, “one must steal something of some intrinsic value.” He goes on to say that he hates real plagiarism, and draws the distinction clearly.

I take his point, which he makes amusingly and well. But I disagree. (As did Jack Shafer of Reuters and Joe Coscarelli at New York Magazine.)

It’s pretty simple, at BuzzFeed or at The New York Times: Write your own stuff; when you can’t or won’t, make sure you attribute and link.

I don’t take Weingarten’s point at all. His argument that material taken from Wikipedia lacks “intrinsic value” is ridiculous. If it has no intrinsic value, then why did you steal it and use it?

At any rate, the reminder: If the words aren’t yours, attribute them.

See also:

Playbook: Attribution and hyperlinks

Attribution: Citing sources and avoiding plagiarism

Lennay’s Law: Tell us what you know is true, and tell us how you know it