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A couple of weeks ago a colleague of mine emailed a report to our team that he'd been working on, and I only got to reading it today.

It seemed pretty well written initially, but as I worked through it I noticed that the table numbers didn't add up, the formatting was inconsistent, and no references were supplied. On a hunch, I copied and pasted a paragraph of text into google, and it came up verbatim from a website. I copied and pasted other bits of it, and approx 50% of it is lifted verbatim from various places around the web. Wikipedia, books, and various websites.

There were no references, no citations, no quotes, nothing indicating that these were not his words. In some places, the copied text ended and his own words continued in the same paragraph, with no indication of what he'd written and what he hadn't.

I also don't know how to approach this, how much of a big deal to make? I can't imagine any scenario where this would be OK, but perhaps I'm just making a big deal out if it. Do I approach our boss? or my collegue? I don't want to blow things out of proportion.

Details from the comments:

  • The task was to provide a summary of the specific technology (our boss' wording), he didn't indicate that it was/wasn't his own words when he sent the email. I had the impression that it was his own words.

  • Our team is basically in R/D and works with research papers all the time, we all have at least a BSc, so I don't really understand why he didn't just link to a whole bunch of websites/sources instead. Even if he'd said "here's some stuff I found online" I wouldn't have had any issues with it.

  • I'm not expecting fancy citations, just putting quotes around the relevant paragraph with a link to a website would be fine, it wouldn't take any extra time and would be useful to actually read the website.

  • I like the guy, I'm not out to get him in trouble. I just want to understand why he did this, it seems really weird.

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    Was it presented in a context of your colleague presenting this as their own work? Or was it just their attempt at collecting useful information and giving it to their coworkers? – dwizum Jan 28 at 15:36
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    Also - what's your goal? What would you hope to accomplish by approaching your coworker? Telling us that will help us tell you how to do it. – dwizum Jan 28 at 15:36
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    It's not clear why you believe that this report should have contained citations, references, etc. or why it matters that much of the content is not his own work. In a business context - does the document fulfill the requirements it was created to address? It's (presumably) not being presented in an academic context as the work product of some sort of research effort ... – brhans Jan 28 at 15:41
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    What if you tell your boss, and your boss says great, that's exactly what I wanted them to do - give us all a summary! I don't need my employees wasting time creating citations, I just want the important information. – dwizum Jan 28 at 15:44
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    If the information provided was helpful, I don't see why it would matter that he did not cite specifically where the information came from. You are always free to reply to his email asking if he has any links to additional resources. – sf02 Jan 28 at 15:47
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Whether or not it's okay to copy text into a report and distribute it to others is highly contextual.

In a broad sense, if the report will be presented to external parties, or will be represented as original in any sense, it would be a typical expectation that citations would be used any time that the text or intent of the message had been copied from another source.

However, there are vast quantities of documentation created every day, for internal audiences, where citations aren't important - and where spending time on them may even be seen as wasteful. When the intent is simply to summarize and distribute some basic publicly available information on a new technology, it might not be a big deal to not cite your sources.

That said, giving a list of references "for additional reading" might make sense in that case, so it may be worthwhile to reply to the original email and ask for any references the report writer has on hand for further study, if you're so inclined.

But, in general, if there isn't a clear need for citations or references, the content isn't explicitly being presented as original, and your boss hasn't specifically asked for references, the situation you're in probably doesn't actually need any response from you. In general, unless there's an obvious violation of policy, regulation, or intent, it's best to not worry about "telling on" your coworkers.

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    I've been thinking a bit about this and I think that I agree that for the most part documentation doesn't need to have citations or be held up to an academic standard. I think what bothers me is that he gave no indication that it was a compilation of stuff from online, and instead I had the impression that this was something he wrote himself. He could have said "this is some stuff I found". He could have taken 2s to put quotes around the paragraphs he pasted and put a link, and the fact he was in academia for years and didn't do that, and chose to carry on typing, it just is so weird to me. – stan Jan 28 at 16:41
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    I can definitely understand why it strikes you as weird. Especially given the academic background. But to many people, it may simply be the way they normally operate. And, ultimately, as long as there are no regulatory or legal concerns (there don't seem to be), what really matters is if your coworker is effectively doing what their boss asked them to do, which doesn't seem to really hinge on whether or not they included citations. For all we know, the boss may have specifically directed them to cut/paste/summarize, so the missing quotation marks may be implied. – dwizum Jan 28 at 16:44
  • I mean seriously what would you do if someone asked you for references from a report you wrote. This is not good advice right? – blankip Jan 28 at 16:58
  • @blankip maybe it's just the company I'm at but we literally share references with eachother all the time. – stan Jan 28 at 17:05
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    @stan what are you hoping to achieve out of this ? – level_zebra Jan 28 at 17:46
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I suggest approaching this not from the point of view of "he plagiarized", but rather "we have no way to read more or go back to original sources". What if some source was just wrong? Now you don't know where the information came from.

You also don't know if he actually has a list somewhere on Confluence (or equivalent) and is happy to share.

I would ask him in a friendly manner, maybe you can cc others so that it is obvious you are doing this for the good of the team and say something like:

Hi Coworker,

Thank you for putting together the comprehensive report!

Is there a list of papers/links used in this report somewhere that we can use to learn more about the topic?

Stan

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  • Yes being a passive aggressive report detective seems like great advice :). – blankip Jan 28 at 16:56
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    @blankip, can you please clarify why this is being passive aggressive? Do you not talk to your coworkers? Do you not try to learn more? This is pretty standard in many industries (wanting to learn more about a technology), especially at an R&D firm. – Catsunami Jan 28 at 16:57
  • Passive aggressive = asking for papers/links when you know there is. "Is there" implies you don't know. Since you do know and you use "is there", that is passive aggressive. Not to mention that you can easily google the text to get the reference yourself. This is borderline triple passive aggressive. If you think its not then it must be part of your status quo. – blankip Jan 28 at 17:00
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    Alternate take, this is the polite and constructive way of addressing it. – mxyzplk - SE stop being evil Jan 28 at 17:03
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    @blankip I am specifically asking if there is a list. I am not asking if sources exist somewhere in the universe. I am asking if the colleague put together a list of references. Why would I spend time googling something if someone else already compiled all the resources together? – Catsunami Jan 28 at 17:17
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Unless the work is going to be published to the outside world then this really isn't an issue. If it's internal documentation, nobody cares.

There are no marks for original research, and there is no penalty for plagiarism unless you try to sell it to the outside world, in which case it's copyright theft.

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You don't approach him.

What are you going to do? Mark his report to a C- because lack of annotations? Are you going to call the dean and report him for plagiarism?

He isn't writing a paper to be published. There is nothing wrong with copying and pasting things from the web. Yes original ideas are a plus... but who cares?

The number one reason for not breaching this subject - You may be the laughingstock of the office for spending the time researching the validity of another person's report as if it were a college essay.

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