Plagiarism and Library Research Guides

A couple of weeks ago I had an unusual request. A librarian wanted to use one of my Libguide pages as an example of citing sources in research guides. It seems the dean of the library or someone had expressed concern that the librarians weren’t paying enough attention to plagiarism within Libguides and wanted a presentation to raise consciousness.

I have to say, it’s not a subject I usually think about. As far as I can tell, librarians have always had a culture of sharing about research guides. It’s not like we’re doing original research here. There are only so many ways to describe the research process or annotate a database. And though we seem to have become the citation police, librarians aren’t the plagiarism police, at least not on my campus. There are other academic units for that. While I’ve tried to assign credit when I blatantly copy or adapt something, I’ve given permission to everyone who’s wanted to use some of my Libguide material to do whatever they like with it, and I’ve never bothered to check whether people were citing or linking back to me. Now that I’m thinking about it, I wish Libguides could be published with some sort of Creative Commons license.

Eventually, I tried to find some examples of plagiarism in Libguides to see if this was widespread. It wasn’t hard. All I had to do was search Google for PLAGIARISM LIBGUIDES. The first guide that came up was this one with a page on avoiding plagiarism. That one has a section beginning, “Each day we take ideas from others without acknowledging the original source.” That’s probably true. In this case, there’s also a sidebar with a warning that begins, “Changing the words of an original source is not sufficient to prevent plagiarism.” That’s an unattributed warning, I might add, although based on the 73 results that come up in Google for that phrase, the source seems to be a document from Turnitin. Ooops.

And we get some interesting results if we search for the phrase “Each day we take ideas from others without acknowledging the original source.” That phrase, along with an entire section explaining plagiarism, shows up on at least three other Libguides, none attributed. Looking at the four, it’s impossible to tell who was first, or if all four are plagiarizing some third document.

So, plagiarism in Libguides definitely happens, and it’s ironically amusing that guides are plagiarizing each other to warn about plagiarism. Should we worry about it or try to do anything about it? I’m thinking probably not. While it might bother me to have an article or blog post blatantly plagiarized, I just don’t have the strong feelings about library research guides. Unlike with other types of writing, with research guides we’re all in this together, and using stuff that works for research guides helps everyone. It’s important for scholars to attribute ideas and phrasing for their sources so they don’t pass someone else’s ideas off as their own. But with library research guides, there just aren’t that many original ideas. The Libguides platform itself is built on the assumption that we want to easily borrow stuff from other guides, especially within our own institution. But perhaps I’m missing something and this is somehow a big deal.

12 thoughts on “Plagiarism and Library Research Guides

  1. We manage a few popular LibGuides and encourage members of our consortium to copy and re-brand them as their own. So I would guess in many cases permission is given, but not credit. No biggie.

    That said, I work at a university that sort-of counts LibGuides as publications in tenure and promotion, which raises a whole host of issues around this.

    • I hadn’t heard of institutions counting Libguides as publications for tenure and promotion. We don’t think about them that way around here. They’re just a part of our jobs. I’ve done a few “original” Libguides pages, and I certainly mention them as part of my annual review, but it’s hard to think of them as publications. Are they listed on CVs and everything? Does a certain percentage of the guides have to be something that no one else has done?

  2. Interesting post. I hadn’t really thought about this before. As a LibGuide author, I certainly look at other guides for inspiration, but that usually means I’m looking for links to good external resources I can reuse, not the language used to describe an academic concept or discipline.

    I would like a Creative Commons feature in LibGuides that makes it easy to apply that license to a page (although I realize I could create a CC box myself…).

    • I hadn’t thought about it either. Borrowing from other library guides just seems like something we’ve always done, for better or worse.

      As for the CC license, there could be a Libguides specific license. Mine would probably say, “do whatever noncommercial thing you like with this content.”

  3. I’ve even gone and slapped a Public Domain license on annotated guides and so forth. No citation needed just slice and dice at will.

  4. I totally agree with you about LibGuides. I’ve been asked for permission to copy/paste a lit review into a guide, and I said yes and was credited. That makes sense, but if anybody wants to steal my guide content I want them to have at it and not clutter things up with attributions.

  5. I always ask for permission, and include credit unless or until I make substantial enough changes for me to consider them no longer analogous enough to the original to warrant attribution.

    Usually I don’t care if people re-use my guides without attribution, but I’ll admit it’s weird to look at the guides from my old job, which I created, and which have not been changed at all, but now have a different librarian’s face and name on them. I don’t care enough to complain, and it could be considered a work-for-hire situation, but it still feels a bit wrong to me.

    • I’d probably find that irritating to the degree that I disliked my previous job.

  6. I don’t really think it’s practical to expect attribution in the same way you would for other writing. I don’t really consider my LibGuides MINE, you know? I create them for my workplace, same as I might create a flyer, post an announcement on a website, etc. I’ve left all kinds of LibGuides behind at jobs and would never expect anyone to continue to give me credit. When would it no longer be “mine”? How much would have to be changed before it would be the new librarian’s? What about guides where several librarians have collaborated? And in my mind, those little pictures on the side are most important as a point of contact for questions. I’m clearly not going to be available for contact, so why should I be listed?

    And as you point out, the language isn’t all that unique. We’re describing the same concepts, the same strategies, the same tools. Now things might get a little murkier if someone created a guide that was really, really unique, but even then I personally wouldn’t care a bit if someone were to use my guide as inspiration and lift some passages.

    That said, as a LibGuide creator I do think it’s a good idea to ask permission or attribute as appropriate, and that’s what I personally do, but I see that as a good professional practice more than anything else.

  7. Libguides tend to be cluttered enough without wasting space with attributions. These are intended to get folks to appropriate sources and perhaps to teach them something, they’re not (in my mind) exemplars of academic writing.

    • Definitely too cluttered. The page of mine being used as an example contained an attribution only because I adapted it from a book. It wasn’t something I borrowed from another Libguide.

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