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Is Retweeting Plagiarism?

The evolution of citation and plagiarism via Twitter.

As someone who has been teaching college writing for 12 years, I’ve seen a lot of plagiarism. While the culprit is sometimes the type whose wholesale theft of a paper can be established through the magic of Google, the area is usually much grayer. Lack of quotation marks is the most common “academic integrity problem” that I see: The student uses the exact words of a source, includes a citation, but they present the material without quotation marks, making it appear to be a paraphrase. This boggles my mind, because when did we first learn about quotation marks, the fourth grade? The closest I’ve ever come to a logical explanation is one student who admitted she thought quotation marks only applied to speech. Whatever the cause, the misunderstanding usually appears sincere and is definitely common.

Maybe it’s just the pessimistic part of my brain talking, but I suspect such misunderstandings are going to multiply in the future, thanks, perhaps, to Twitter. Twitter’s quotation methods—“RT” (retweet) and “via”—lack quotation marks and seem destined to further erode or complicate our sense of how to give someone credit for their words.

For non-tweeters, here’s how Twitter citation works. Let’s say you spy a tweet you think is fantastic, like Shawn Ryan’s beautiful synopsis of the writing process: “Write something bad now. Rewrite it tomorrow. RT @rackrat24 Any strategies or tips for getting past writer's block?”

To quote it, you can use RT or via, which are attached either at the engine or the caboose of your own tweet, like so:

RT @ShawnRyanTV Write something bad now. Rewrite it tomorrow. RT @rackrat24 Any strategies or tips for getting past writer's block?

Or like so: Write something bad now. Rewrite it tomorrow. RT @rackrat24 Any strategies or tips for getting past writer's block? (via @ShawnRyanTV)

Note that you can retweet a retweet, and you can add a response to a retweet, as Ryan did. Problems arise when the original tweet is too long, as online plagiarism expert Jonathan Bailey points out: “This forces a devil’s choice of either changing the original tweet, thus possibly changing the meaning on accident, or lobbing off attribution.” Last year, Twitter introduced a RT button, which solves the problem of retweeting a long tweet, but denies the chance for the retweeter to add a response. None of these methods is perfect, and new users are prone to goofing all of the above up.

Then there are those tweet-stealers whose claims of ignorance are as believable as a large financial institution’s claims to non-vampire-squidhood (to borrow a Matt Taibbi term). Some big-name tweeters—including Tim Siedell, the wonderful badbanana—have been ripped off by folks who conveniently and repeatedly forget to use “RT” or “via.” So how does an online free-for-all like Twitter get policed, or police itself?

Turns out, justice is doled out by other users, in a vigilante style that would make Batman proud: Bad spellers are shunned and heckled on Twitter and frontier justice definitely extends to plagiarism. Take the case of “Fake Julian Perretta” who describes himself like so: “Julian Perretta is a recording artist that has plagiarized repeatedly on Twitter. I am not Julian Perretta, nor do I pretend to be. The purpose of this account is to expose Julian Perretta's chronic plagiarism.” Fake Perretta documents the real Perretta’s fakery here. Such public shaming eventually got the attention of the Twitter gods themselves, who suspended the pilferer’s account for a while. We’ll see if Perretta learns his lesson, or if the Twitter community will need to go Jack Bauer on him again.

Since honest misunderstanding and malevolent word-theft are both as eternal as roaches, it’s safe to say plagiarism will endure. But I’m on shakier ground in worrying that Twitter’s citation style will spread like a virus; such world-is-going-to-hell ideas are usually silly and false. As David Crystal pointed out about texting (a similarly brief and maligned genre) in this column, heavy texters are actually improving as writers, contrary to popular myths: “What is interesting is the recent research which is showing that the more kids text, the better their literacy scores. This shouldn't surprise anyone. Reading and writing improve with practice. Texting provides that practice.”

So who knows? Maybe online outrage directed at thieves like Perretta will galvanize writing students of the future to give a crap about plagiarism beyond the world of 140 characters. Let's all RT that thought.

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