Citation Plagiarism Once Again

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Last year I wrote about citation plagiarism and why there is no such thing. I just discovered a comment on this by Miriam Burstein at The Little Professor which requires some discussion.

"Citation plagiarism" refers to the situation in which author A cites reference C which he learned of by reading the work of author B and does not cite B as the source of the reference. I argued that this is not a form of plagiarism because the failure to give credit is in general much less significant than in true cases of plagiarism, because in most fields there is no tradition of such a requirement, and because it would arbitrarily single out one of the many ways in which scholars learn of relevant work as requiring citation. Professor Burstein's comment does not address this issue at all. Rather, she deals with a different issue which she has conflated with that of plagiarism.

The situation with which Professor Burstein is concerned is one in which author A cites reference C but does not read it and does not indicate that his or her knowledge is based entirely on the work of author B. Here the offense lies not in failing to give credit but in not having oneself read the original source. As I discussed in my original post, this is often a venial sin, but even if it warrants criticism, it is not the same thing as plagiarism and generally does not warrant the same degree of condemnation.

In sum, Professor Burstein's critique does not apply at all to my central point, that "citation plagiarism" is not comparable to the principal forms of plagiarism. The behavior that she actually discusses is failure oneself to read the original source. Depending on the case, this is to various degrees to be avoided, but it is a different sin from plagiarism.


  1. Mark Liberman said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 4:46 am

    There are related cases that are more troubling, and where the history can be reconstructed. Say A writes an obscure (even unpublished) paper, drawing important conclusions based on (properly cited) data drawn from B. Then C publishes, more prominently, similar conclusions citing the same data drawn from B, without citing A either as the source of the data or the source of the idea. But C's presentation of the data contains a scribal error — say a couple of transposed letters or digits — exactly matching an error found in A.

    I've been told about one real case with exactly this structure. I know of several others where the tell-tale scribal error is missing, but the apparent exaggeration of originality remains. I grant that there's a long, gradual slope between this and the natural and inevitable diffusion of ideas.

  2. Nathan said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 5:18 am

    Citing a source you never read isn't plagiarism; it's just lying. I see it as about as serious as falsifying your academic credentials. It's a sin with possibly one less victim than plagiarism, unless you materially misrepresent the content of your alleged source. It's still unprofessional, stupid, and immoral.

  3. James Wimberley said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 6:44 am

    It depends on the context. For an academic paper, sure the author should read the sources if possible. But for a student paper, a newspaper op-ed, or a blog post, composed under pressure of time and with less library access, citation plagiarism pasting is I reckon entirely acceptable. The citation should be real and not apocryphal, so some checking is called for: the secondary source should be respectable.

  4. James Wimberley said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 6:49 am

    Attempted strikethrough of "plagiarism" in line 4 of the previous comment did not work. Commenters be warned: Language Log's new infrastructure doesn't seem to accept html tags in comments and there's no preview. Rise up comment serfs! Where was that pruning hook? .

  5. Chris Helzer said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 7:51 am


    I see the strikethrough on "plagiarism" on my browser (Safari 3.1.1 on a Mac runnning 10.5.2).

    [From Mark Liberman: I added the intended strike-through after James complained. When I have some time, I'll try to figure out how to persuade WordPress to accept (some) html for commenters, without opening us up to the security problems that (I presume) are why it comes out-of-the-box disallowing some (most?) tags.

    I'd also like to figure out how to let commenters edit their comments, how to have threaded discussions, etc. Eric Bakovic, who is more experienced with WordPress than I am, has been a big help. Still, all the time I spend on such things takes away from my (already minimal) blogging time, so it may take a while, unless someone can give us a reliable recipe…]

  6. Paul Frederick said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 7:52 am

    How much of a cited paper do you have to read before citing it isn't lying? What if you don't have time to read it, but you want to cite it because it is the origin of an important idea which you have learned through a more a more accessible source? In mathematics, reading every line of a paper is usually quite onerous, and often the only information needed is the statement of a theorem. Likewise, in theoretical physics, new ideas are often first presented in an impenetrable form which then other authors turn into something readable. In both these cases I think citing work that you haven't read in entirety is essential.

  7. language hat said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 9:13 am

    This is a fascinating topic, and I doubt it's possible to come up with a hard-and-fast answer, or one that will even partially satisfy everyone. I suspect opinions will vary between people who work in the humanities and scientists; I suspect the former will see more misleading references that don't actually support the point being made and thus will be more wary of secondhand references. I know I am. But I look forward to seeing people's thoughts.

  8. JimG said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 9:42 am

    Seems to me that it's possible to overanalyze this issue. The sin is the taking of other people's work (OPW) by another. If research takes any time and effort and money, then taking it unjustly for one's own is a sin. The sin is perhaps lessened if one uses OPW as guidance for applying one's own time and effort in order to come up with one's own (different) conclusions, but the taker's hands are not lily white. Do I oversimplify?

  9. Geoff Nathan said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 10:19 am

    On a slightly different tangent, I have, for the past week or so, been preparing a lecture on the nitty-gritty details of copyright, which is distantly related to the notions of plagiarism.[1] I can definitively say that citing reference C withough going through the intermediary of B is not a copyright violation, because you can't copyright facts, and pointers (weblinks, bibliographic references, telephone numbers) are facts. So, just as you don't have to cite the source of someone's phone number (I looked it up in the Yellow Pages, or whois or…), you don't have to credit a weblink. This is important for those of us who teach online. And I think it's relevant to the issue at hand, also.

    [1] Only half of me is a linguist these days–the other half is an IT policy geek: IT blog here

  10. rootlesscosmo said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 10:25 am

    "Citing a source you never read isn’t plagiarism; it’s just lying. "

    So if you cite Historical Statistics of the United States for a paper on corn farming in 19th century Iowa, you ought to read every table on average life expectancy in 20th century Oregon? Seems burdensome.

  11. Geoff Nathan said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 10:37 am

    And I do know how to spell 'without'. Yes, 'Preview' would be very useful. I'm not familiar enough with WordPress myself, but I may have time to dig around a little…

  12. nick said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 11:06 am

    To be a bit more forthcoming about how your ideas developed, you could just say: (C, cited in B). Just citing C gives the impression that you developed the idea independently, but you were actually informed of it by B.

  13. Bob Lieblich said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 11:42 am

    Lawyers routinely discover useful judicial precedent by finding cases cited in other cases as they research. It is taken for granted that one can cite and quote any case without setting forth the chain of cases by which one got to it. Sometimes, to bolster the authoritativeness of the legal point being made, a recent case quoting the earlier one is quoted quoting it: "As the Supreme Court said in Jones v. Smith (1937), 'That's quite enough of that.' Brown v. Green (1992)." (I've left out the book-and-page stuff.) But there's certainly no requirement to do so.

    On the other hand, many years ago a (sorta) judicial opinion of mine — published — was unmistakably plagiarized in another opinion of another tribunal about a year later. There's no copyright on such opinions (I was working for the US Govt), and I know of no sanctions against verbatim copying without attribution, but it still bothered me. I knew the author well enough to call him and ask wtf. He swore he had no idea how it happened (and I believed him), but we couldn't figure out the exact mechanism by which it got in there.

    I share the views of pretty much everyone else posting here on the specific issue under discussion.

  14. Richard Hershberger said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 12:21 pm

    Regarding citing a source without actually seeing it, I think context matters a lot. My personal vice is 19th century baseball history. I might come upon a citation from an obscure newspaper, not widely available. What am I to do if I want to use this, but can't travel to a local historical society in Iowa to see it for myself? I would probably cite it indirectly: footnote both the primary and the secondary source.

    It is an imperfect solution because it tends to reinforce conventional wisdom. The secondary source has processed the information through an interpretive filter. If this interpretation is flawed, the information is alterred. If the results are what one expected, they will not be viewed critically, introducing a bias for conventionality. But what can you do? Be up front about this, hence the dual citation.

    Other fields may have very different issues, so I do not generalize this.

  15. TJ said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

    Here is an interesting paper, slightly relevant: by analysing the propagation of misprints in the citations, they estimate that 70 – 90% of citations are copied from lists of references in other papers.

  16. Nathan Myers said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 1:59 pm

    The sin is not in citing C without having read it. The sin is explicitly refusing to cite B, having read (or, worse, cribbed from) it. B', the author of B, in some environments, lives or dies by citations. Failing to cite a relevant B is a minor theft. Failing to cite B specifically because you would otherwise be caught stealing ideas from B compounds the crime. Being found to have refused to cite B despite relevance, or because you cribbed its references, raises justified suspicion that one did steal from B, even if it's not instantly evident how.

    In cases where it matters, B' is likely to be an academic rival to whom A' prefers not to give credit because B' is (in A"s opinion) an idiot.

    [Typographical note: two adjacent apostrophes.]

  17. ST said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 2:14 pm

    The Finkelstein/Dershowitz controversy was not typical because Finkelstein was not accusing Dershowitz of suppressing a valuable work of scholarship that contained the original source. Rather, he was accusing Dershowitz of suppressing a discredited work of scholarship, presumably because the original source (Mark Twain) had more credibility than the secondary source (Peters).

    Under those circumstances, accusing Dershowitz of plagiarism probably weakened Finkelstein's main argument. He could have pointed out that Dershowitz had suppressed his source without making the charge of plagiarism, which suggests that Peters' book was a valuable work of history.

    I tend to agree that what Dershowitz did was not plagiarism. At least it is not the type of plagiarism that the rules are intended to prevent. If a secondary source is so disreputable that citing to it would detract from the merit of an argument, a writer should be able to rely solely on the primary source. It would be different, however, if the secondary source made a valuable contribution to the field and the writer simply did not want to give credit to the author of the secondary work.

  18. Jon Weinberg said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 2:48 pm

    1. Some years back, a young academic I know published an article presenting a novel thesis in her field of law. Afterwards, a different author published a treatise in which a string of ten or so footnotes duplicated, in order, the sources the first author had cited in part of her article; the inference was unmistakable that he had followed the structure of that part of her article, but written new text above her citations. The young author was nowhere mentioned. Whether or not you refer to that as "plagiarism," it seems to me like misconduct.

    2. Citing a source doesn't involve the representation "I've read this source"; it involves the representation "This source supports the proposition it's cited for." Doing so without reading it is really sloppy, because if you don't read it you might not discover that it doesn't, in fact, support the proposition it's cited for. That doesn't make it lying, though, just bad scholarship.

  19. Crwth said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 5:05 pm

    It's too bad this didn't come up last week. In the paper I handed in on Thursday, I cited B, but also cited C, having not read it, because B (which was my focus), heavily referred to C.

    I had decided that it would be wrong to not cite C; leaving it in the hands of readers to read B and realize that B cited C heavily felt like it would be plagiarism, considering I doubted that readers would go read B anyway.

    Specifically, B cited verbatim examples from C, which I then used in my own paper; I'm not sure how I would have approached it if I was just referencing an idea or conclusion reached by B (based on cited work by C).

    Given that I'm a do-it-at-the-last-minute student who certainly wouldn't have bothered to find and read C, was I wrong to cite C, or should I have left it up to B to cite C on my behalf?

  20. Teresa said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 5:13 pm

    I suspect the nature of these sins depends heavily on both (a) what you got from the intermediate source and (b) what you use from the end-chain source.

    In terms of (a), I can see both situations where this would be a non-sin and situations where this would be a serious sin. (For the record, I'm a statistician). For example, if I am looking for the original publication of some theorem—Cramer-Rao, to take an example—then I am much more likely to turn up papers citing it than the original paper itself when I perform a search. Using those papers' citation to cite the original paper—even not reading the original at all (see (b)), if I am familiar with the statement of the Cramer-Rao theorem—seems perfectly reasonable to me, especially in cases (as are common in mathematics) where the original paper was published over a century ago, and may be significantly non-trivial to find.

    As a counter-example, suppose I am looking for a new method of analysing a time series and I come upon a paper which uses a well-known result in a new and interesting way. I use the well-known result (citing it properly) in the same interesting way without citing the source of my inspiration. In a sense, I'm correct, and obviously scientists can't cite every inspiration they ever had for how to do science (…and now I'd like to thank my 3rd grade science teacher, Mrs. Flamebeck…) but this seems to be to be a fairly serious sin.

    When it comes to not reading the end-chain source, (b) comes to the fore. Again, I am unlikely to get myself in trouble if I cite Cramer-Rao's theorem as published in another work (personally, I'd cross-check several references to make sure the wording is right, but as long as they match, I'd go ahead and use it). If I cite some statement like "Cramer-Rao's proof relies on integrability, which fails for Cauchy distributions" (I'm not actually sure this is true, btw; this is a made-up example) I'm better off if I actually read the proof and make sure this is true.

    I suspect both of these tend towards one end in disciplines such as mathematics and towards the other in those such as comparative literature. Presumably comparative literature has relatively few unambiguous statements such as theorems and relatively many "deeper meaning" issues.

  21. jfalk said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 9:25 pm

    I don't see why I'm under any obligation to say where I got a reference. What difference does it make whether I saw the reference in the work of A, went and got it and read it, or whether I saw a reference to it on a bathroom wall? The reference stands for the proposition that it's there. How I found the reference is irrelevant. I leave out lots of irrelevant aspects of my research. I agree with the other posters that citing the reference without reading leaves one at the mercy of the original referrer, not a good place to be but hardly dishonest. (Economist here.)

  22. Gregory Karber said,

    April 23, 2008 @ 11:09 pm

    I think that if you are unable to confirm the citation's accuracy, you should cite the paper from which you took the citation. This would work in the aforementioned case of the 19th century baseball, where verification of citations might be rather difficult.

    However, if, after discovering a citation in one paper, look up the reference being cited and confirm that it is accurate, then it seems like you would only need cite the original source. (Obviously assuming you take no ideas from the paper in which you originally read the citation.)

    It seems ridiculous to do otherwise, because, as Poser alludes to in his original article on the topic, nothing that we read comes from the void. Should we cite search engines? References from friends? What if, in attempting to access one paper online, a person accidentally stumbles upon a second paper on account of a typo. Do you cite the first paper? The typo?

  23. language hat said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 9:15 am

    People seem to be mixing up two very different situations.

    1) I read A, who cites B; I read B myself, decide it supports the point I want to make, and cite B, not bothering to mention I found it in A. We can call this Neglect to Cite Intermediary.

    2) I read A, who cites B; not being able to read B for myself (or simply being too lazy to bother), I cite B anyway to support my point, trusting that A read, cited, and interpreted B properly. We can call this Neglect to Read.

    I myself have stronger feelings about 2 (Neglect to Read), because it has ramifications beyond mere politeness — if the source was misread or misunderstood by A, the ripples of misunderstanding can spread far and wide, and by the time someone actually reads B for themselves and realizes it's been misused, the error may have become so entrenched the truth will have a hard time catching up with it.

    People can differ about the relative seriousness of the offenses, but they are two different things.

  24. Thomas Lumley said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 10:36 am

    The study showing copying of references doesn't necessarily show that they weren't read — in the old days, copying a reference to a paper you had read but didn't have conveniently lying around, and in modern times cutting and pasting a reference to avoid retyping are both possible explanations.

    I will also admit to 'neglect to read' in at least one case: I have cited Bonferroni's probability inequality for unions of events, published in an Italian journal over a century ago. I have never seen this paper and probably couldn't read it if I had. Multiple secondary sources tell me that this paper is the first appearance of the inequality, and I think it is good to credit the original inventor. On the other hand, my reasons for knowing that the inequality is true have nothing to do with this paper: it is easily proved and a standard exercise in introductory probability.

    A similar phenomenon on a less extreme scale happens quite a bit in medical statistics. It is fairly common when referencing a statistical method to give both an accessible source (for the reader's benefit) and the original reference (for proper credit). One of the most cited papers in statistics is the 1972 paper by David Cox, proposing the proportional hazards model for survival times. It is notorious that the majority of the citations are from people who have never read the paper. The papers proposing the Kaplan–Meier estimator and the Wilcoxon–Mann-Whitney test used to be cited in the same way, but now appear to have reached the stage of being accepted as common knowledge.

    I suppose what all these cases have in common is that the current paper supports the cited paper rather than the other way around.

  25. John Cowan said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 10:42 am

    As a non-academic, my personal policy is to freely refer to primary sources I haven't read, but always mention the secondary source that I did read. If I read a primary source because a secondary source told me about it, I probably won't mention the secondary source unless it's way easier to get a hold of. (There are a lot of primary sources I simply have no access to unless I'm willing to pay outrageous charges like $35 an article.)

    And then again, where I have no earthly idea where I read about something, I just go ahead and use it anyhow, a freedom denied to my academic brethren a-clanking in their chains of citations.

  26. Citation plagiarism « Hopeless but not serious said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

    […] 24, 2008 · No Comments There's a big debate going on about this at Language Log.  If you cite a source you found in another source without […]

  27. Bryn LaFollette said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 3:39 pm

    The assumption I had always worked under in citing others' works was that the important issue was the foundations and ideas that your work was building upon. For example, I read work B which cites a work C, and having learned of C from B, I then read C. If my work A is using a proposition or principle developed in C, and I don't believe that I'm using any ideas or concepts inspired by B or developed in B, then I'm not sure what the point of citing it would be, just like one wouldn't cite one's colleague if they suggested reading work C through conversation or email, etc. Of course, however, by not citing B in my work A, I am thereby claiming that all the ideas developed upon propositions from C are entirely unrelated to anything developed in B. So then, if B is on a topic even remotely related to my own, which seems likely if both are citing C as a foundation, then it would dishonest not to cite B if only to draw a contrast between your own conclusions built upon C and those in B. Ultimately, it seems to me it really all just comes down to giving credit where credit is due.

    The case of citing some work without having read it is a seperate issue, which may be due to laziness or, obviously in some cases, accessibility of primary sources. Then, of course, there's the related but seperate issue of misusing a primary source because you fail to actually understand the argument therein.

    Overall, I would agree that failing to properly cite someone else's work (and their ideas) is not as serious an issue as plagiarizing their work. One I think is an issue giving proper credit and respect, and the other is outright stealing. However, as Mark Liberman pointed out above, I also agree that there are cases where an instance crosses the line from one to the other.

  28. finick said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 4:06 pm

    Quoting Paul Frederick, “In mathematics, reading every line of a paper is usually quite onerous, and often the only information needed is the statement of a theorem. Likewise, in theoretical physics, new ideas are often first presented in an impenetrable form which then other authors turn into something readable. In both these cases I think citing work that you haven’t read in entirety is essential.”

    Fellow linguists, be honest, how many of us have actually plowed through every word of some Chomsky book that we eventually cited?? I suspect there would be far fewer references to Chomsky’s work if the requirement were so strict, if we couldn't rely on the exegesis of textbooks and whatnot. I think that if you've used an idea or formalism that has its origins in someone’s work, you should cite that person's work even if you've never read the original yourself but learned about it through other means. Not to do so would be dishonest, and citing an intermediary source is only sometimes practical. If you learned about the Theta Criterion from your professor in an undergraduate syntax course, do you write "(Chomsky 1986, by way of Professor XYZ, Syntax 304, Fall 1993)"? Or should you put off publishing your paper till you've actually read Chomsky 1986?? What about all the OT papers that cite Prince & Smolensky 1993? Has every phonologist actually read Prince & Smolensky 1993??

    I think there's another kind of situation when citing C without first having read C is more-or-less excusable. Let's say you read B, who quotes C (and properly cites C). Let's say the quotation is a particularly concise yet elegant way of stating or defining something (say, for instance, what a phoneme is), and you want to quote this in your paper as well (instead of coming up with your own less elegant paraphrase). Of course, one would want to make sure that one is not misquoting someone, so one should at least look up the original quotation to make sure it's accurately quoted by B. But otherwise, it seems rather silly to read a whole phonology textbook, say, just to cite a particularly nice way it defines a phoneme. If this is a sin, then mea culpa… :-p

  29. dr pepper said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 4:17 pm

    1. Doesn't WordPress have an option to accept bbcode?

    2. My father once complained about losing credit to an inderect citation. Part of a paper he wrote in the early 60's was incorporated into a broader document put together by someone higher up in his company. Years later, after he had retired, someone else wrote a book about his industry and quoted that very section of the second document, but cited it as being written by that document's author.

  30. language hat said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 8:25 pm

    be honest, how many of us have actually plowed through every word of some Chomsky book that we eventually cited?

    This is a straw man. Nobody is saying you have to read every word of every work you cite. You should have actually seen the quote in contex, rather than taking a third party's word for it.

  31. language hat said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 11:01 am

    (Er, context, that is.)

  32. BMC said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 3:06 pm

    All this discussion takes place in a *context* in which plagiarism is a great sin. Plagiarism was not always the great sin of writing, and it will not always be so frowned upon. Only late-rising Romantics like Emerson authorised a stupid and negligent culture of Romantic originality, which constructed nineteenth-century cultural Anglophone institutions with the pipe dreams of modernity. Modern academia has much to blame for investing so much energy in citations. No wonder academics call their use of the quotation marks "citations", and not merely (o so vulgar) "quotations". The citation is academia's juridical form: to cite is a call to witness. To cite is to witness truth, perhaps, but it is also to attach references and names and authority to the littlest of all marks, and judgment to a juridical network full of the anal results of festering academic parasites.

    The phenemon of the citation has much to do with the factory-farmed chickens in their cages: grain is thrown down, and they go mad and cut each other to threads. For there is not enough grain in academia, and there are fights that break out in such a small space. But, from outside, this looks less than ridiculous: it looks like something the factory-owners can ignore and shut up or something tragic for everyone else who may, by some slim chance, see it.

    But, alongside this, there is also the question of unprofessionalism in study. Self-appointed professionals, or everyone aspiring to be professionals (read: well paid), will love to point out how bad, stupid and sophistic are all those who are unprofessional in their reading. But how about we really locate the sources of negligence? Why not talk about a *context* for a citation in a culture that gives us no time, that takes away our freedom to study, that forces us to scratch around desperately for the next citation in order to pass an assignment, and that encourages us to lie and cheat. And why be so pathetic in academic neo-con-liberalism as to condemn others for doing what needs to be done, or for trying to cheat a system that is problematic, stupid and narrow-minded in the first place?

    Citations should be quotations; loved for their own sakes, as things to enlarge the pleasure of language. Forget the game of sources and let's focus on what becomes more-and-more apparent when all the tests are junked: invention.

  33. BMC said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 3:13 pm

    I just posted some silly thoughts. I really should have stoped myself (or, at least, edited).

    But, in the end, I am proud I didn't cite anything – unconsciously plagiarising the whole time, of course, and even drawing off quotations stored in my head and in other sources!

  34. Erik Hetzner said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 4:51 pm

    I think that there some confusion in this argument stemming from differences in disciplinary practices. Let us leave aside the question of whether or not it is correct to quote a source that you have not (fully) read.

    In history and presumably the other humanities, it is quite common to provide somewhat lengthy quotations from sources. I would argue that the selection of these quotations constitutes a creative act. When B provides an original selection of a quotation from C, this is a creative act that should be acknowledged. When A reads the work of B, uses the same quotations (possible edited down further), but cites C (whether or not they have read C), they have failed to acknowledge the creative work that B did. This is not a question of citing the complete chain by which you learned of a work, this is an acknowledgment of the creative activity of another individual, which seems to be me to be exactly what is violated by plagiarism. Now, certainly this is a lesser plagiarism than straightforwardly calling another's work your own, but I have trouble seeing how this can be described as anything other than a minor form of plagiarism.

    Now, in the sciences (at least in CS, with which I am most familiar) these kinds of long quotations simply does not happen, so I think that people coming from this point of view have trouble imagining what the fuss is about.

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