Ten days before my wife gave birth to our son, I discovered that some of my work had been plagiarized. But this was different from the usual case of academic theft; what was burgled wasn't passages from an article or book, but an entire online bibliography I had compiled.
Back during the summer between my dissertation defense and the start of my first tenure-track job, I had put together a bibliography dedicated to a minor figure in early modern studies. As first postdissertation projects tend to be, this undertaking was enjoyable, if only because it wasn't my dissertation.
I placed my bibliography online and considered it my first venture in "open access" publishing.
For the next few years, I regularly updated the bibliography. My collecting of new entries for the Web site lagged a bit for a year when my wife and I took temporary teaching assignments in our university's study-abroad program, but I continued to work on it when I could. My wife, who is an academic herself, would always ask me the right questions about the time I spent on the bibliography, gently prodding: "What's the payoff? With the tenure clock ticking, shouldn't you be working on articles?"
On our return to the United States, I discovered that a foreign publisher had just brought out a bibliography on my topic. I immediately volunteered to review the book for a journal. After receiving the reviewer's copy, I subjected my wife to several days of babbling commentary along the lines of: "This is amazing!" "They have tracked down every single entry I have on my Web site." "This book contains everything."
I naturally began to wonder whether my own Web site had helped the authors in producing such a complete bibliography. I searched in vain for any mention of my work in the introduction to the volume, particularly in the lengthy description the authors provided of the methods and resources used in its compilation. I concluded that my own bibliographic efforts had been successfully and coincidentally duplicated.
Of course I tried to console myself by thinking that established scholars had produced a work that independently confirmed the excellence of my own efforts.
And then, one evening, my eyes alighted on a strange entry on page 376 of the book. A few seconds later, my very pregnant wife, propped up with pillows on the couch in our living room, heard me shout excitedly from our study, "I've caught them! I've got 'em! They took from my Web site!"
The entry in the volume that caught my attention identified a particular article as falling on pages "**-70." I had listed that article on my online bibliography in the exact same way. Before writing the entry for my Web site, I had lost the first few pages of the article, so I had used two asterisks as placeholders until I could track down the article again. My idiosyncratic reference had been repeated verbatim in the published bibliography!
That piece of evidence proving that the authors of the volume had depended on my Web site was, admittedly, excruciatingly small. I wondered whether more examples could be found.
My training in medieval history had acquainted me with the practice of identifying dependencies among manuscripts by tracing the repetition of errors. By analogy, I thought, if there were additional idiosyncratic errors on my Web site that also appeared in the book, each instance would be a discrete piece of evidence showing that the volume had lifted material from my work.
I found myself in the unusual position of hoping that I had made more mistakes. Could I find more evidence than just two bizarrely placed asterisks?
I did. Lots of it. In a few cases, the mistakes were embarrassing: misspellings of names, errant pagination citations, or slightly incorrect titles. Every error, omission, or idiosyncratic entry that appeared on my Web site also appeared in the volume.
But in the end, the most damning evidence was the inclusion of editorial material from my Web site in the volume. Such editorial material appeared nowhere in the original books and articles themselves; I had simply added the material to explain to readers of my site more information about a particular text. My annotations were mistakenly taken to be part of the titles of the works and were presented as such in the volume.
In truth, my detective work provided a much-needed distraction as I passed the time waiting for my son's birth. Indeed, some of the sleuthing took place after he was born; it helped the night shifts move along more quickly when I was on baby duty and my wife was resting.
Nearly the entire content of my Web site was reproduced in the book. But the book was certainly broader than the content of my site. The book covered works in all the major European languages, and my Web site just dealt with works in English. The stolen material surfaced in the last 90 pages of the volume. Still, in my judgment, those last 90 pages made up the most useful part of the book.
Before deciding how to proceed, I had to answer the question of how I had been harmed. So some major scholars in my field used my bibliography when they published a better one. Perhaps it wasn't a big deal. Can one really plagiarize a bibliography? I kept returning, however, to the lengthy passage at the beginning of the volume that described how it had been put together.
I would have been pleased with a simple footnote of acknowledgment. But it wasn't there.
The fact remained that I did some academic work, and someone else was getting credit for it. I worried someone might even think that my Web site had borrowed from the volume. Perhaps if I were an established scholar with books under my belt, I wouldn't have cared about the whole affair. But that possible world was not the one I lived in, so I had to do something.
I finally wrote a letter to the authors and the publisher asserting the dependency of the book on my Web site and appended a 17-page table of evidence. I requested that the publisher republish the book, or a portion of it, with credit to me as a co-editor. I sent the letter by e-mail message as well as by overseas mail and then waited for a response, half worrying that I would be totally ignored by all parties.
Within two days, however, I received an e-mail message from the publishing house inviting discussion regarding two legal issues. The publisher questioned, first, whether a copyright could be asserted for a Web site; and second, whether a bibliography as such could be copyrighted since, presumably, all bibliographies are compilations of previous bibliographies. The message closed with the promise to contact the authors to hear their responses to my letter.
I decided not to enter into a discussion of the two legal issues. I am not an expert on international copyright law, and I knew the bibliography was my own creation. I responded to the publisher with a brief note expressing thanks for the quick response and an eagerness to hear from the authors.
Two weeks later, I received a second e-mail message from the publisher. One of the authors of the volume had "confirmed his regret for what has happened" and noted that a rush in correcting the proofs had "caused the omission" of any reference to my work. I found the author's explanation to be diplomatic at best, but I was gratified at the admission. The publisher followed with an offer to reprint the last portion of the book with my name stated as co-editor. Several months later, I received the reprints.
What have I learned from the experience? My thoughts on l'affaire bibliographique are varied, and I am left with two unresolved worries.
First, I am not sure I can call my experiment in open-access publishing a success. I have been thinking about starting a bibliography on another topic. Should I also put it online? I don't know.
Second, there is the issue of the status of the reprint with my name on it. Will it ever be seen by anyone other than my wife, my son, and me? The reprint is not cataloged in any library, and, as far as I can tell, the publishing house isn't selling it. I believe now that it is likely that I am the only person in the world who has copies of the reprint bearing my name. Sure, I'll be going up for tenure in about a year and a half, so I can include it in my tenure packet, but in the larger scholarly community, my name will probably never be associated with the print version of the bibliography.
There was, of course, the remaining question of what to do with the book review I had agreed to write. After much thought, I overcame the temptation to use the review as a forum to tell my plagiarism tale. Instead, I omitted any mention of my unwitting involvement with the book's composition, listed its strengths and weaknesses, and predicted that the volume would become the standard reference work in the field.
After all, I do really like the book.