Borrowing and Acknowledging in an Online Context | Plagiarism Advice

Borrowing and Acknowledging in an Online Context | Plagiarism Advice
Although it is true that new events and ideas are trending online every moment, it is also true that the concept of ‘nothing new under the sun’ was never more apt than when applied to the information available on the internet. We have all had the experience of finding ten pages on a topic only to discover that eight are basically verbatim reproductions of the first. Fresh information is prioritised by search engines, but there is, in fact, a lot less fresh information and conceptualisation out there than this prioritisation might suggest. To a large degree, then, learning to write successfully online is learning the art of making the old fresh again – a very ancient art indeed – and central to that art is an understanding of what to borrow and what to acknowledge from the online work of others.

It is essential that academics and scientists do not plagiarise the work of other authors. Less involved readers may fling scholarly ideas about in casual online chats, but those who conduct and publish advanced research should maintain their professional stance in their online writing. This means that the words and ideas of others should never be borrowed in the sense of using them in a blog post or other online article without acknowledging the source. They can certainly be cited, however, so any content that is borrowed should be clearly identified as such. Formal citations of the kind used in an article published by a scholarly journal may not be necessary, but it should definitely be clear to readers where the borrowed material originates. In addition, whenever the research and ideas of others are discussed they should be treated with respect, even when the point is to express disagreement.

Many other aspects of online writing can be borrowed without acknowledging any particular source. Borrowing aspects of layout and formatting from successful online documents can, for instance, be very helpful because what works in one instance may well work in another and particularly in similar contexts. Bloggers whose articles are very popular indeed probably have a lot more going for them than layout and formatting alone, but it is entirely likely that those features are effective in rendering the material they are writing attractive, accessible and engaging to their readers, so they are definitely worth studying, emulating, borrowing, combining – whatever works. ‘Borrowing’ material of this kind is akin to determining and emulating the expected structure for a scientific paper or an academic argument before submitting a document for publication and requires no particular acknowledgement.

Ideas can be borrowed as well without acknowledgement, but they must be general ideas, which means that using them does not really constitute borrowing from any one source so much as voicing or writing what is generally known. Authors seeking inspiration for their blogs or web sites can therefore search via keywords to see what other bloggers are writing about and then address those topics in their own writing. Let us say, for instance, that the idea that reporting complex research results in short online formats is especially challenging is encountered online by a would-be blogger who is struggling with this particular challenge. The blogger quite naturally chooses to use the idea as a way to approach the online report of his or her research because it so conveniently explains any omissions or qualifications that must be made for the online context. In such a case, the ‘borrowed’ idea is far from new and there is no need to acknowledge the source because the blogger is not citing the research or ideas of another author, but applying the general and well-known concept to his or her own research and ideas.

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