Oxman’s Wikipedia Plagiarism

Joseph Reagle


A few weeks ago I spoke with journalist Stephen Harrison for his article “Is copying from Wikipedia plagiarism?”

For those interested, I provide the full interview below with Stephen’s permission.

There are two overlapping and complementary frameworks involved: legal and scholarly.

Legally, Wikipedia allows users to use Wikipedia’s exclusive right to copy, modify, or publish Wikipedia content if the users attribute the source and share the result under the same terms. Wikipedia content is not “public domain” but licensed via the “Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike” license.

Academic conventions require that scholars attribute others’ ideas via citation and others’ prose via quote marks.

For example, on page 81 of Oxman’s thesis, she took over 200 words verbatim from the Wikipedia article “Weaving” without attribution or quotation. This is both an infringement of Wikipedia’s copyright and academic plagiarism.

2. My understanding is that AI tools that detect plagiarism are relatively new, but people have been copying Wikipedia for a long time. What are some notable examples from the past?

Wikipedia has an article, “Plagiarism from Wikipedia,” that includes incidences from 2008 through to Oxman (added by a Wikipedian on January 06).

3. An AI tool like ChatGPT can lift language straight from Wikipedia and does not provide attribution. Therefore, why is it wrong for a human to do so?

The fact that AI is doing this does not mean it is without issue, nor does it obviate centuries of legal and scholarly rules. Copyright owners are suing AI companies presently, and we would be better served by AI that could identify the source of its claims for many reasons.

4. I have read some defenders of Oxman say that she was permitted to copy Wikipedia because it is “public domain.” Why is this wrong?

Wikipedia is not public domain.

5. Why have you been disappointed by press coverage of this issue?

I have been disappointed by the conversations about this issue because of the confusion of terms — much of which is purposeful to muddy the waters.

For example, critiques of Neri Oxman, formerly of MIT, and Claudine Gay, of Harvard, have stated they “plagiarized” their dissertations. This implies they stole the central ideas of their dissertations. I don’t think this is the case. Instead, their dissertations contain plagiarized prose. This is a lesser, but still significant infraction.

6. I wonder if some writers are concerned about style, and the awkwardness of having a citation or quotation marks in every sentence. For instance, it would be sort of clunky to include footnotes in a Slate piece, whereas it’s more common in an academic article to have a footnote with every sentence. Any thoughts on this style concern?

You are right; different fields have different conventions and norms associated with citations and quotations. Even so, journalism is still concerned with ensuring that attributions are honest and accurate.

7. Similar to #6, but specifically curious about any stigma from attributing to Wikipedia. Might some (academic) authors avoid it because it looks lazy or bad?

In academia, citing an encyclopedia as an authoritative source on a topic has never been appropriate. Wikipedia doesn’t change that. In fact, since at least 2006, the prominent “Cite this article” link in Wikipedia’s sidebar takes you to a page warning you about doing so, but if you do, it provides conveniently formatted citations in the major formats (e.g., APA, Chicago, and AMA).

8. Is it morally less objectionable to copy from Wikipedia than from other types or texts? Why or why not? (For instance, I have read objections that Wikipedia is constantly changing, has multiple authors, or that someone shouldn’t have to quote Wikipedia if they themselves wrote that content for Wikipedia.)

I suppose a singular author might be more upset to see their prose used elsewhere and misattributed, but that doesn’t change the legal or scholarly issues.

9. I’m curious about the idea that, in some cases, copying from Wikipedia could be unintentional. For instance, a journalist writing an obituary might read that person’s bio page. A phrase or sentence from the obituary might stick in their mind, and emerge in the final piece. Should we allow for the possibility that some copying from Wikipedia is unintentional and therefore shouldn’t be considered plagiarism?

There are degrees of plagiarism: are ideas or words being taken without attribution, what is the extent of the plagiarism, and was it the result of intentional action or carelessness?

10. What do you think is the proper attitude people should have to the new AI tools that detect plagiarism? Would you encourage more vigilance on behalf of drafters to disclose drafters? More mercy to (perhaps, unintentional) offenders?

Tools that can easily detect plagiarism have become a weapon, as we’ve seen in the cases of Claudine Gay and Neri Oxman. There’s little evidence of this presently, but I would hope sensible people can distinguish between inevitable mistakes of copy-editing, of taking of others words out of laziness, and taking credit for others novel ideas.

11. Would also be interested in any thoughts you have about where the moral framework for plagiarism derives—is it from a University’s code or someplace else?

The word and concern goes back to the Romans — or so Wikipedia tells me! Anthony Grafton (1997) has an excellent book on one mechanism scholars have adopted for attribution: The Footnote: A Curious History. Laurie Stearns (1999) also has an excellent chapter, “Copy Wrong: Plagiarism And Copyright Law,” in a collection on the topic. More recently, Susan Blum (2009) wrote an ethnography of attitudes about plagiarism on campus, My word! Plagiarism and College Culture. Unfortunately, I don’t recall if they spoke to the history of academic integrity policies at universities, but such policies have existed since I was a student decades ago.