Information Overshare

| August 18, 2010

An interesting article in Sunday’s New York Times addressed a popularly-held misconception of today’s undergrad students that anything on the Internet is free for the taking, without citation.

This is caused by a coupling of the ease in which students can copy-and-paste online content and the culture in which publishers create tools making it easier to share their content (the NYT article, for example, has ready links to share on Twitter, Facebook, and a variety of other social networking sites). There’s also a tendency for text to be virtually “passed” from site to site or blog to blog until it loses its authorship. I once witnessed a teen text ChaCha a question on his iPhone, and when the answer was received, copy the answer into his homework. In its beginnings ChaCha sent links to sources with their answers but this is no longer the case. Their focus now is more on advertisement. I just tried texting a question to ChaCha and the only thing included with my answer was the note “Find out if u n ur crush r compatible!” with another number to text if I wanted to take the bait.

The NYT article pointed out confusion amongst digital natives as to what is “common knowledge,” quoting a student who believed that Wikipedia entries fall under this category because they are written by the masses and are free to access.

While many facts listed in Wikipedia, such as dates and locations, are common knowledge, that doesn’t make it OK to copy entire paragraphs from Wikipedia without attribution, though I can see how some students become confused. The Yale University Writing Center explains it well:

The “common” way to talk about common knowledge is to say that it is knowledge that most educated people know or can find out easily in an encyclopedia or dictionary. Thus, you might not know the date of the most recent meeting of the Federal Reserve, but you can find it out quite easily. Further, the term “common knowledge” carries the sense of “communal” knowledge—it is community information that no particular individual can fairly claim to own. One sign that something is community knowledge is that it is stated in 5 or more sources. So, if it’s known to educated people, or can be easily looked up, or appears in many sources, it is likely to be “common knowledge” and so does not need to be cited.

You may be tempted to call this generation of coeds daft for not questioning their sources or being able to recognize when they’re plagiarizing. Fair enough, but they may have learned it from watching some national publications do the same thing. In 2008, London’s Daily Mirror published a review of a soccer match in which the reporter called fans of the AC Omonia team “the zany ones” who “wear hats made of shoes,” information that was added to Wikipedia by a smug prankster who had a laugh all over the Web on the following day. Here’s what he had fabricated and added to the AC Omonia entry only days before:

A small but loyal group of fans are lovingly called “The Zany Ones” – they like to wear hats made from discarded shoes and have a song about a little potato. They are known to keep their season tickets in the oven for safekeeping.

The prankster, called”godspants,” called the Mirror on their error the following day, but that didn’t stop the rag from referring to “the zany ones” again in the next morning’s issue.

While I would like to think that most journalists would question whether soccer fans like to sing songs about potatoes, sometimes these misleading “facts” are a little more subtle. Take, for example, the 2009 incident in which the name of German’s new economy minister was altered in Wikipedia by a joker who wanted to mock the already-lengthy name, adding “Wilhelm” to his surname lineup. The fake, lengthier name was reprinted in top German news site Spiegel Online and reported in other media outlets. The lesson here? A name may be “common knowledge” but as Yale advises, something must be stated in 5 or more sources to be considered “common.”

There’s also the phenomenon of April Fools stories. I would blame Google for making this a widespread practice as they have an annual April 1st tradition of releasing new features and products that are actually elaborate hoaxes, such as Gmail’s “Custom Time” that would allow users to send emails to the past marked as “read” so you can back up your claim “hey, I emailed you about that weeks ago!” On April 1, 2010, CNet published the article, “Man arrested at Large Hadron Collider claims he’s from the future.” This funny and irresistible story was retweeted and referenced in countless blogs and reprinted but other news outlets who were not savvy enough to give a second thought to the date on which it was published (or review all the comments on the original CNet article by readers hip to the joke).

My advice to those undergrad students who feel all information found online is in a copyright grey area: Take the X Files stance. The truth is out there, trust no one.

Or to be a little less extreme: trace “facts” to their original or reliable sources, don’t get duped, and cite everything you Ctrl+C.