Philosophical ques. re: plagiarism

Subject: Philosophical ques. re: plagiarism
From: Rowena Hart <rhart -at- INTRINSYC -dot- COM>
Date: Fri, 31 Jul 1998 09:14:53 -0700


I've worked in different areas of technical writing over the
years, and I have produced many different kinds of materials.
With each new project, I can expect to contribute anywhere
from 10 per cent to 100 per cent of the contents, depending
on my role (editor, writer, layout and graphics, online help,
web pages, etc).

I find it difficult to work on projects if I produce very little "new"
writing. This is usually the case when an SME (subject matter
expert) provides the technical description of the framework,
functionality or applications of a particular product. Sometimes
I will receive very little information from an SME, and have to
turn to books, journals, web pages and newsgroups for the
technical information I need to explain how our products work.

I have a number of concerns about these writing projects,

* How can I guarantee that an SME is not plagiarizing a source?

Generally, I use my editor's "SD" (shit detector) to check for
writing that is too good to be true, or for sentences that don't
fit the SME's personal writing style. But what do you do when
plagiarized information is outrageously integrated into a long,
complex technical document? You probably aren't going to find
every "liberated" sentence in a 30-page document.

* How ethical is it to skillfully "adapt" information from technical
sources and pass it off as your own writing?

Personally, I include a references section or footnotes if I am
using someone else's work (paraphrasing, not plagiarizing).

However, there seems to be a frontier attitude among my soft-
ware peers (programmers, engineers and writers alike) that is
obscuring the definition of plagiarism. It is just too easy to cut
and paste something from a web site into a technical document.
I usually hear the phrase "No one will ever know -- it's the web!".
I've also seen people take an SME's document and call it their
own. Because I'm the "documentation person", I'm usually given
credit for documentation even if I only contributed 10 per cent
of the contents. By the time I've said "...but John Doe wrote a lot
of the document..." the boss is already half-way down the hall.

* How common is it for technical writers to help themselves to
other people's writing?

I would venture a guess that it's quite common, especially in
the software industry. Technology changes so often, I know that
I am in a constant state of research. If I find a good definition
for something, I keep it to use later in my writing. Also, if there
is a tight deadline on a project, a writer may not have time to
create completely new text. When the clock is ticking, it's time
to beg, borrow and steal to get the job done.

NOTE: This is simply a philosophical question to stimulate
discussion re: plagiarism. I am happy to say that I have never
plagiarized another writer's work. I also do not support plagiarism
in any way, shape or form.

Looking forward to some interesting comments,

Rowena :-)

Rowena Hart
Technical Writer
Intrinsyc Software, Inc.
Vancouver, B.C. Canada

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