One of our members, John Welford, a freelance proofreader and indexer, part-time librarian, and also sub-channel steward for the English Language section of the Languages sub-channel, has written a fantastic post in the Helium forums providing some tips and insights about how to avoid plagiarizing articles, especially on Helium. The post has sparked some great debate and I’m hoping we can get some more great insights here!

I’ve reposted John’s entire discourse here:

As has been apparent from a number of posts in these forums, there is a fine line between making use of sources and plagiarising. We all know that very few Helium writers (of factual articles) are truly original, in that they are making use of knowledge discovered by others and not writing from first-hand experience or their own personal research.

That said, there are ways of recycling knowledge that avoid the problem of being accused of plagiarising.

The best way to write is to make use of several sources and add your own “take” on the facts that you use. That, for me, is where Helium wins hands down – the presentation of short articles that summarise knowledge in a small compass and add the writer’s own thoughts. That is how knowledge advances, both in the academic world and the less formal environment of Helium.

If you are making a direct quotation you must say so and give your source. However, this is not always necessary when using material more obliquely. Personally, when I see a long list of sources at the end of an article I am more suspicious of plagiarism, not less, as I tend to think that the writer might have copied someone else’s paper, both text and sources! Common sense needs to be applied here, with cited sources being seen more in the light of guides to further reading than as pleas to avoid charges of plagiarism.

It is always easy to check your text by using a free plagiarism checker. Just cut and paste a section of text (six words or longer) into the checker and you will see immediately if that text has come from somewhere else. I find it amazing that a string of six simple words can be unique across the Internet, but this is usually the case. When a Helium checker finds that this is NOT so, you have cause to worry. I have seen people in these Forums complaining bitterly that their passage was the same as someone else’s purely by coincidence – sorry, that excuse just doesn’t wash! Test your own work in, for example, http://www.plagiarismchecker.com, and see just how big a coincidence it would have to be for your twenty words to be exactly the same as someone else’s!

I have another tip for avoiding plagiarism, and that is not to do all your research from the Internet! I often find that many sources that can be found from a Google search are remarkably similar as between themselves, simply because they have plagiarised each other. Even if you use several of these sources you are therefore unlikely to be adding anything new, and might well be plagiarising a source other than the one you are using.

Instead, try using that old-fashioned piece of technology, the book, for your research once in a while. Please note, I am NOT suggesting that you should copy screeds of material from books as opposed to off the Web, because the crime is exactly the same, but I am suggesting that you broaden your horizons by including the printed word among your sources.

My usual policy is to use my book collection (or library borrowings) as my primary source material, and update it from the Web, as I fully appreciate that books cannot contain any knowledge that became apparent after they were printed. In other words, I am not doing anything very different from what I did at school and university when writing essays, half a millenium ago, namely using passages from books as the starting point and adding my own interpretation as I go along.

I have found any number of fascinating snippets of knowledge in books and journals that are completely new to Helium, and have therefore been able to earn several “empty title” bonuses by suggesting a title and writing a piece on something that would be difficult to find elsewhere. One of my sources, for example, is a school prize that my uncle won back in 1912!

By using book material, instead of text that anyone could find on the Web for themselves, you are adding more to the pot of knowledge, and are even less likely to be accused of plagiarism. However, I must repeat that direct copying is wrong, whatever the source, and whether or not a plagiarism checker can discover the offence quickly.

So, dear readers, what do you think?

A lawsuit between Gatehouse Media and the New York Times Co., owner of the Boston Globe has recently been resolved.

According to numerous news sources, Boston.com and it’s new “Your Town” websites were accused of scraping headlines, ledes and links from Gatehouse’s “Wicked Local” websites.

Web scraping or harvesting is described as a method to extract content from a website. – From www.kneoteric.com/knowledge-base/glossary/glossary.html

While scraping is not inherently evil, it can present issues of plagiarism and other editorial and business issues. There are a lot of websites that compile or aggregate certain headlines and content with much success and it’s perfectly OK. However, as Boston.com and Gatehouse’s web sites were in direct competition in the same regional market, the federal court in Boston decided that in this case, scraping was not entirely on the up-and-up.

The case may also set a fascinating precedent that has a far-reaching affect on editorial websites and linking behavior in general. More importantly, it is a case that should be considered extremely important for Helium writers who use links in their articles to great (and not so great) effect.

As Helium does not allow plagiarism at any level, scraping of content word-for-word is strictly prohibited. However, members are allowed to link to related sites and articles that fit into the context of what they are writing about. It is also OK to summarize or paraphrase certain passages on other sites that you may link to. In either case, this will ensure that you are not copying editorial property of another company or person.

Referring to headlines in your article is a different case. If you have an article about, let’s say, the reproductive habits of the Duck-billed Platypus and to support a new finding on a recent scientific article in somewhere, It is OK to write something like:

New findings have been recently made regarding the season that the Duck-billed Platypus prefers to mate. In the article called “Name of Article” [with link inserted] in the “name of publication” so and so states that…

Titles on Helium should also be looked at differently. Many readers and writers may find that a title on Helium may also exist on Associated Content, About.com and some random blog. Many titles such as “How to do this,” “A guide to that,” or “Tips for doing such and such” are considered public domain types of titles. They are commonly used by everyone and are recognized as such.

However, if a member decides to submit a title such as “The classification of the genome for aggressiveness found in the saliva of the leaf-cutter ants of Belize” is probably a no-go because you are copying a distinct and unique title that was specifically written about a new concept that is not considered public domain–unless it’s your original article. However, if you added “Analyzing Joe Schmoe’s article called …” at the beginning, you recognize the original source and that, as they say, is kosher.

The case between Gatehouse Media and the New York Times Co. is not the first time that an online editorial entity had an issue with another for links and scraping, and it will likely not be the last. But as a Helium member, do the safe and ethical thing by providing context, credit  and links any chance you get.

While you may not get immediate results, you will improve your reputation as an online writer of contextual substance with sound ethics.

(Disclosure: Helium.com has a business relationship with Gatehouse Media and maintains a strictly neutral voice in this case. Helium.com, it’s staff and it’s members were not involved in this case and did not participate in creation of any content involved in this case.)