When I posted this blog, embedded software automatically generated a tweet using the first hundred or so characters, added a link to this page, and publish it to our @FreeChoiceLab Twitter account. That tweet then enters numerous timelines of our fans and followers who are welcome to follow the link and read what I’ve written. If they should like what they read, they may be so inclined to share the original tweet with their fans and followers, who then have the opportunity to read, enjoy, and share the original tweet, or an officially retweeted version.

By “officially retweeted” I mean something very specific. The sharer can use the retweet function built into Twitter, causing the original tweet to appear in their timeline with “SharerName retweeted” added to the top. Alternately, the sharer may copy the tweet, paste it into new tweet under their own name, and add “RT @OriginalPoster:” to the beginning. Both of these methods attribute the original author of the tweet. To put it in academic language, the original author has been cited. However, when a person decides to share a tweet by copying the content and reposting it under their own name, with no attribution to the original author, that’s plagiarism. Or, more accurately, Twagiarism.

On the surface, it may seem that Twagiarism is kind of a non-issue. After all, Twitter is all about sharing, using the creativity-inspiring limit of 140 characters. If I tweet “I had a great week, procrastinated myself into super organization” what’s the harm if someone else who also procrastinated posts an identical tweet after reading mine? The problem is that while there is a lot of innocent, banal content shared on twitter, there is also more serious content, and it’s all considered intellectual property of the original writer. And because there’s no easy way to categorize whether something is frivolous, or perhaps the next famous quote, Twitter has a very specific policy regarding copyright infringement (fancy legalese for plagiarism). Item 9 of the Twitter terms of service states:

“Twitter respects the intellectual property rights of others and expects users of the Services to do the same.”

What this means is that whatever a person posts is the intellectual property of the one who posted it, and Twitter expects its users to respect that. Users who violate this term are subject to having the content removed, and in extreme cases Twitter reserves the right to terminate a user’s account.

In academia, use of social media is on the rise. Institutions have official twitter accounts, managed by one person or a team, and the tweets represent the interests of the institution. The same goes for groups, labs, and individuals who have professionally linked Twitter accounts. What may not be immediately recognized is that every tweet is, technically, a publication. It might not be the peer reviewed kind typically associated with academic publications, but they have the same protection, and the authors have the same rights. There’s also more at stake if a person tweeting for an institution engages in twagiarism, because what the world sees is the institution they represent engaging in unethical practices. Isolated incidents of twagiarism can often be dealt with by educating the individual or group about proper retweeting practices. Repeat offenders are when having a specific, well-planned policy comes in handy.

Oregon State University currently does not have a policy regarding plagiarism specific to social media, but they do have a policy on more traditional forms of plagiarism. Only time will tell if this is sufficient protection, or if there needs to be a specific policy. Twitter is fundamentally social, and if hashtage trends are any indication, even the smallest, seeming inconsequential thing can suddenly be a global trend. Considering that the reputation of respected institutions is impacted by acts of Twagiarism, an in house policy may be an important line of defense against public castigation.

So please, if you’re going to share the tweet for this article, retweet it using the button Twitter provides, or adding RT manually when you share it.

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