Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Reverse plagiarism: Giving credit where none is due

Dear Rich: Is reverse plagiarism a legal/ethical issue? A textbook author has made up a definition of a word. The definition is accurate. However, instead of saying it is her definition, she wants to credit it to a Merriam Webster dictionary. What support can I use for my argument that she cannot do this? For those who are unaware of the phenom, reverse plagiarism is a strange, predominantly academic practice in which real or fictitious sources are credited when no credit is due. Why would anyone do that? Usually it's because the author is attempting to add credibility to his work, attempting to achieve the minimum number of academic references required for a paper, or to increase the statistical probability of a paper being recovered in search results. Pseudonymous attribution -- for example, listing the famed director Alan Smithee -- is not reverse plagiarism unless the actual director is credited as well (BTW, there is a mathematic Smithee and a scientific one as well). The whole idea is to create the idea that somebody contributed to something when they did not. We can't comment much on the ethics (though discovery of the practice has apparently resulted in articles being pulled from publications). Legally ... In the case you describe, Merriam-Webster could probably bring a Lanham Act claim for false endorsement (and perhaps if the information is used to sell the book, a claim for false advertising). We imagine that the practice could give rise to various claims including  unfair business practices (predominantly a state law claim), possibly defamation and perhaps even invasion of privacy. We're spitballing, a bit but that's because we don't know all the details. If credibility matters, we'd avoid the practice.