The Boris Johnson Plagiarism Scandal

From Plagiarism Today:

The United Kingdom is in the midst of what might be its most important election in a century. With the drama over Brexit swirling, the country is at a crossroads and it’s very likely that the next election will shape the future of the country for decades to come.

However, that election took a back seat on Friday following a terror attack on London Bridge that killed two people and injured three. That attack has now become a talking point of the election itself, with all sides striving to assure voters.

One of the more notable responses was from Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is also head of the Conservative Party. In a 16-tweet thread, outlined why the alleged attacker was released, putting the blame on the Labour Party, his biggest political opponents.

. . . .

However, shortly after it was published, a pseudonymous blogger, The Secret Barrister, put out his own tweet calling the thread a plagiarism of his blog post, which had been published just hours earlier.

PG Note: Asterisks replace an interesting epithet PG hadn’t heard in this particular form before.

According to The Secret Barrister, Johnson cited the same sources he did, made similar observations and then “stripped out the inconvenient context and adopted a false conclusion.”

He also added:

“I find it fascinating that, having never previously shown any interest in explaining complex areas of law to the public, within hours of my posting of a full explanation of the legal issues involved in this case, the Prime Minister’s Twitter account embarked upon a 16-tweet legal thread…”

This, as with any case of political plagiarism, has led to a sharp divide. In the responses to the thread, many have used The Secret Barrister’s words against Johnson. Others, however, have defended him against the claim.

. . . .

It’s important to fully understand the allegations against Johnson. Even though many have called this a “copy and paste” plagiarism, including The Secret Barrister himself, it is not actually that.

The words between the two are completely different. In fact, there are a lot of differences between the two works, in particular with the conclusions. They are similar works, but they are not identical or even nearly identical.

Instead, the allegations center around a combination of the points that Johnson raises, the order that they are raised in and the source he cites. In particular, The Secret Barrister found it odd that both he and Johnson referenced the same document by the Prison Reform Trust charity.

To that end, it’s easy to see why The Secret Barrister and those that support him see the similarities. The tweet thread and his post are indeed very similar, hitting very similar points and differing only with the conclusions. Though no words are copied, one might say the structure of the posts are very similar.

But does this prove plagiarism? This is where things get thorny.

For The Secret Barrister, the case is open and shut, “The possibility that the PM’s own legal advisers drafted his thread without any regard to my witterings has to be carefully considered. But I just can’t see it.”

He goes on to add:

“The number of people who have (apparently independently) noticed the similarities in substance, even if the language has been changed, leads me to believe I’m not going mad. The most obvious explanation is that Johnson (or likely his special advisers) have taken their info from the blog, stripped out the inconvenient context and used it to present Johnson as a legal sage sharing his wisdom. Or, as I’m told academics would term it, plagiarism.”

But is it that straightforward? For me personally, while I agree that there is a reason to be suspicious and wary, it’s hardly an open and shut case. It may well be plagiarism, but there are some pieces to the puzzle missing as it stands right now.

. . . .

To prove that something is plagiarized, one usually has to answer three questions:

  1. Was the work correctly cited? If it’s correctly cited, it’s not plagiarism.
  2. Can the similarities be explained by common sourcing, including tropes, cliches, etc? If so, it’s not plagiarism, at least not a plagiarism of the work in question.
  3. Can the similarities be explained by coincidence? Coincidences happen. Look at the case of Dennis the Menace. Coincidences aren’t plagiarisms. [PG Note: See below]

The first two aren’t helpful here as there is no citation in either work and there’s no indication that The Secret Barrister pulled his format from another source or from a template of some kind. That leaves only the third issue.

But this is where things fall apart a bit. Coincidence is often very difficult to disprove satisfactorily. With verbatim plagiarism, this is relatively easy. We can show that certain strings are unique to the two works and that the odds of them being created independently are astronomical.

. . . .

The truth is that we don’t know and not only is there not enough evidence to say conclusively this is plagiarism but there likely never will be. Barring a confession by Johnson or additional information about who wrote the tweets and how, we are unlikely to have enough information to be 100% sure one way or another.

But, even if we did, the damage would be somewhat limited. While copying someone’s outline and one of their sources is certainly plagiarism, it’s also not as severe as verbatim copying or more direct paraphrasing.

The Secret Barrister’s original post has over 3,700 words and Johnson’s tweets barely break 700 (though they include images of documents). It’s not verbatim plagiarism and it’s not a paraphrase, it’s a different beast altogether. They are similar documents in structure and source only.

Link to the rest at Plagiarism Today

Here is a bit more about the Dennis the Menace case mentioned above, also from Plagiarism Today:

1951 must have been a very bad year to be named Dennis.

The reason is because on March 12 of that year two separate comics entitled Dennis the Menace went on sale, one in the UK, one in the U.S (Note: The UK version is dated March 15 but actually went on sale on March 12).

The UK comic Dennis, which first appeared in Beano #452, was created by David Law and published by D.C. Thomson as a comic strip inside a popular comedy comic book. It’s U.S. counterpart was created by Hank Ketcham and initially distributed by Post-Hall Syndicate as a syndicated comic strip for newspapers.

Though, based on this simple fact, many draw the conclusion that one of the two creators had to have plagiarized the other, it’s become clear that simply wasn’t the case. Not only did the two creators have no way of knowing what the other was working on, but the two characters are actually extremely different. The UK version is a true menace, a mean-spirited boy who likes to cause trouble, and the U.S. version is happy-go-lucky child that causes trouble without intending to.

The two creators largely agreed to allow each other to work on their respective comics and both are continuing in at least some form today (though the UK version is now known as Dennis and Gnasher, named after Dennis’ dog). Though the U.S. version may be the most popular internationally, the UK version is better known in its native country. No legal action has been taken against either creator.

Still, the coincidence is one of the best-known in the publishing world and was recently highlighted on Cracked. However, it also highlights one of the most difficult aspects of plagiarism detection, trying to separate what is a plagiarism and what is a coincidence. Sometimes, it can be nearly impossible to be certain.

Link to the rest at Plagiarism Today

PG notes that, under US law, plagiarism is not illegal unless it rises to the level of copyright infringement.

From PlagiarismChecker.com:

Plagiarism is using someone else’s work without giving proper credit – a failure to cite adequately.

Copyright infringement is using someone else’s creative work, which can include a song, a video, a movie clip, a piece of visual art, a photograph, and other creative works, without authorization or compensation, if compensation is appropriate.

Schools enforce plagiarism.
The courts enforce copyright infringement.

. . . .

Plagiarism

Plagiarism is using someone else’s work without giving proper credit. Schools deal with plagiarism by giving the cheaters academic consequences. Most teachers will give F grades for plagiarized work, and some will do more. When I was a teaching assistant at Stanford University, some students were suspended for copying answers during a test.

Plagiarism doesn’t have to include copyright infringement. For example, William Shakespeare’s plays are not copyrighted because they’re too old. Even though it would technically be legal to copy from one of those plays for an English assignment, it would still be plagiarism if you didn’t give credit to Shakespeare. Your teacher may not be able to take you to court over it, but she can certainly give you an F. You might even get suspended or expelled from school. Even though copying one sentence from a Web site is legal according to United States copyright laws, that may still count as plagiarism in your teacher’s book.

Copyright Infringement

Copyright infringement is using someone else’s work without getting that person’s permission. The author of any original work, including books, essays, Web pages, songs, pictures, and videos, automatically gets the copyright to that work, even if she doesn’t label it with the copyright symbol and her name. The work must be fixed in tangible form, which means it must be stored on something physical, such as paper, canvas, a CD, or a hard disk. This makes college students copyright owners, since they’ve already written many original works for school.

The owner of a copyright gets to decide who can legally make copies of that work. It is illegal to copy large sections of someone else’s copyrighted work without permission, even if you give the original author credit. Imagine someone making copies of the movie Finding Nemo without asking for permission. He sure won’t get away with it just by giving the authors credit on the DVD cover!

Fortunately, a fair use exemption allows you to legally copy small amounts of someone else’s work. Just make sure to give the author credit so you won’t be guilty of plagiarism!

The courts assign consequences for copyright infringement. This means someone may come after you with a lawyer if you violate his copyright. Your school can report copyright infringement to people who have the legal power to take you to court. Students have been sued for copyright infringement before. In some cases, the court may require you to pay the fees for both your lawyer and the copyright owner’s lawyer.

Link to the rest at PlagiarismChecker.com

Earlier this year, PG created a long post about Fair Use, Derivative Works, Transformative Fair Use which is not a Derivative Work and Infringing Derivative Works. He thought it was interesting, but you may not.

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