Thursday, May 7, 2009

Writing in Cyberspace: have I just plagiarised myself?

I received an email a month ago from a peer-reviewed online artist dictionary in regards to my submission of a local artist’s biography. I had written on this artist as part of my honours thesis, simply because there has been little written on him, despite his prolific art practice and significant contribution to the Australian art scene. I had decided that after honours I’d submit this information to Wikipedia and the dictionary I mentioned earlier, so that there was publicly available information on this wonderful artist.

Wikipedia was to be my downfall.

You see, the dictionary contacted me because they’d noticed that the second paragraph of my biography submission was nearly identical to my Wikipedia entry. They were very nice about it, and said that they (rightly) assumed I was the same author, but asked me to change the second paragraph of the biography and resubmit the entry.

Now, I wrote the Wikipedia and dictionary entries on this artist slightly differently. The dictionary, being peer-reviewed and administered by a university, was more meticulously spell-checked and I had put my ‘academic writing hat’ on especially. The Wikipedia entry, on the other hand, had sub-headings and I viewed it as a bit of a ‘work in progress’, as most Wikipedia entries seem to be. However, as I have a particular style of writing, and a specific knowledge of this artist, there was never any doubt in my mind that these entries were going to be (or indeed, needed to be) very different.

So why is the similarity between the Wikipedia entry and the online dictionary a problem if I am the author of both, even taking into account the fact that Wikipedia is ‘anonymous’? I see now, that perhaps I should have written the Wikipedia entry after the dictionary entry was approved. Hell, I could have cited myself! Perhaps I shouldn’t have put information out on Wikipedia at all. If I ever write anything on this artist (or any other topic that I’ve contributed to on wiki) I could be accused of plagiarising myself, and as a post-graduate student, I have a significant case of ‘plagiarism fear disorder’ already.

Also related, is the content on this blog. When I started hobART, I wrote under my middle name, thinking that I could be more ‘critical’ if I was anonymous (although people guessed it was me anyway). However, in one of the tutorials I was teaching last year, we were discussing web publishing and the death of the book, and I mentioned that I had a blog, for which I published under an alias. I said that I found it very helpful and that some of the content might make it into my PhD. After one of the students (quite rightly) pointed out that I could be accused of plagiarising ‘Emma’s’ writing, the disorder kicked in and I changed my blog to my real name.

As a result of these incidents, I feel quite uneasy about writing on the web. On one hand, I want to add to the pool of human knowledge (particularly as sites like Wikipedia are weighed down in American content), but I also want to have the freedom to publish my thoughts under my own name as well, and not be accused of plagiarising myself.

Has anyone had similar experiences or hold the same fears?

Does this fear prevent you from posting on sites such as Wikipedia?

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