Adventures in Ethics and Science

Appropriate use of sources.

The other day, Chad asked about the appropriate use of someone else’s published data:

There’s a classic paper on the Quantum Zeno Effect that I discuss in Chapter 5 of the book. The paper does two tests of the effect, and presents the results in two bar graphs. They also provide the data in tabular form. …

If I copy the data from the table, and make my own version of the graph, am I obliged to contact them and ask permission to duplicate their results in my book?

Chad’s commenters were of the view (substantiated with credible linked sources) that data itself cannot be copyrighted under U.S. law. Therefore, Chad could use the data (citing its source, of course) to make his own graph without having to get permission from the authors. While not required, letting the original authors know he was using their data would be polite, and making a graph with some value-added (rather than one that looked exactly like the graph the original authors made from their data) would also be a plus.

It was a really interesting discussion that somehow reminded me of a related kind of question raised by a friend of mine earlier this week:

What are the boundaries between appropriate use of a press release and plagiarism of that press release?

Plagiarism is usually defined as using words or ideas* that are not your own without indicating their actual source.

Press releases, however, are not works whose authors are struggling for wide acclaim for their lucid prose or groundbreaking ideas. They generally aim to get a particular piece of information** into wide circulation. The snazzier ones come with a ready “hook” for the story being promoted, some bullet points, some handy quotes …

The folks sending out the press release are pretty much handing you a story to disseminate. And at least some media outlets seem to do little more than a minor rewrite of the press releases before putting their stories based on those press releases out there.

Is it a crime to plagiarize someone (the author of the press release) who’s essentially asking to be plagiarized?

I doubt that it’s a crime the organizations issuing press releases would pursue. But, there’s something troubling about it.

Putting your name on a piece of writing as the author of that writing means that you vouch for it. You’re putting your reputation behind its accuracy and fairness. If you’re doing this on the say-so of the issuer of the press release, with no further digging of your own, you’re linking your own credibility to that of the organization that put out the press release. If you essentially go by what’s in the press release but are not transparent about that fact, you can end up giving the impression that you did the heavy lifting — both of finding the facts and of organizing them clearly. If what was in the press release turns out to be misleading, it will look like you were the one who got the facts wrong or presented them in a misleading way.

Worse, if a number of people generate stories from the same press release without acknowledging that these stories all stand or fall on the contents of that press release, this could convey the impression that the story is trustworthy because a number of independent sources ended up telling it more or less the same way. Clearly, the organization issuing the press release would benefit from this — not only does the story reach a wider audience, but it is taken more seriously.

But it’s not clear that the audience benefits.

That’s why, for my money, it’s always best to acknowledge when your source material is a press release. At least identify which claims you are taking on the testimony of the press release. Better still, track down some independent sources of information to see how they jibe with the story as told by the press release, and bring some analysis of your own to the claims the press release is advancing. And identify the source of the press release, so the audience has a chance at teasing out how credible a source it is and what they might have to gain (or lose) by releasing the information.

Even if an organization would happily let you publish their press release as your own work, you may not end up so happy about the results.

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*Many universities’ definitions of plagiarism also explicitly cover works of art, computer code, and the like.

**Depending on the subject of the press release, that piece of information may involve someone else’s lucid prose or groundbreaking ideas, though.

Comments

  1. #1 Laelaps
    July 25, 2008

    Good post, Janet. I’ve been thinking about how to properly reference material as I write my own book, too, and I certainly agree that it should be acknowledged when you’re using a press release or other source as the basis for an article (like you mention it’s always good to note the source of the information you’re writing about).

    Even thought it might be a topic this reminds me of how a number of reconstructions and diagrams I’ve seen after have the caption “After [x author],” which actually can be helpful in tracking down commonly seen illustrations. It’s almost like following a meme; not so easy without hyperlinks but it’s interesting to see how things can sometimes mutate as they’re reproduced.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    July 25, 2008

    I am not sure that plagiarism is the correct term here in many cases. Press releases are routinely (and this is as you say their function and the desire of the press-releasers themselves) reproduced in large chunks in stories. It is not plagiarism but rather a kind of cooperative effort.

    A writer putting her name on the text from a press release with no acknowledgment does seem wrong, however. But is it? This actually brings up another issue: Bloggers pretending they are journalists. I don’t think this issue is a deep or troubling, or novel, question for journalists. Only for people who suddenly bump into journalism stuff and are uneducated in that area.

    Since I am not a journalist and am not trained as such, I always provide the text of press releases as quoted text. However, unlike other works where percentage of use, etc., is part of the decision of “fair use” I feel that I can use any amount of a press release that I deem appropriate. Unlike journalists and various news outlets, I link to the press release if it is an on-line document.

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