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Technical writing and sources

Years ago, when I was working on a relatively large Help Desk for corporate customers as a Subject Matter Expert, one of my tasks was to write simple “Quick Start” documentation for users. I can still remember how ashamed I felt at one point, when working under an impossible deadline. That’s when my boss found out I had copied text verbatim from a software maker’s help file and pasted it into my document, thus representing it as my original work. Of course this was unacceptable, and a form of outright plagiarism. And that copied material was completely rewritten before any third parties saw it, for legal, ethical, and moral reasons.

As a result of this event, I learned an important lesson. Today, be it a tutorial on TenForums.com, a blog post or an article, if I use original content from another writer / publisher, I always cite my sources. I will usually quote the original source if the part I am “borrowing” is just a few lines, along with a link to the original content. Should I make longer extracts from someone else’s content, I do not do this verbatim. Instead, I will reformulate that material in my own words. However, I mention the source even then.

I was thinking about this just this morning when I in search of something online, I found this original content on sysadmin-utils.blogspot.de/:

Using sysprep without removing drivers:

How to use sysprep without removing drivers:
Configure your answer file to persist the drivers by specifying the PersistAllDeviceInstalls setting in the Microsoft-Windows-PnPSysprep.
Another way would be to configure the registry key:
HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Setup\Sysprep\Settings\sppnp set PersistAllDeviceInstalls to 1.
Interestingly, the very next search result in Bing came from that same blogging platform but a different tech blog. Nevertheless, the  content was the same, word for word. Not a single mention of a source, posted as original text without acknowledgement.
Let’s compare, starting with the original post in a screenshot:
Then, here’s the same  exact copy, pasted into another blog two years later as original content:

Notice that the copycat even retained identical formatting and layout!

It is of course not my business to tell anyone how sources should be cited. I am just stating an opinion. In this case, it would not diminish the value of the copycat’s post if he / she had cited the source. Had I posted this, I would have enclosed it in quotation marks, and would have added a remark such as “I found this on abcdefgh.com”, and posted it as a tip with full acknowledgement of the original source. It’s a short enough snippet of text (and difficult to reword at that, in a way that presents the information as quickly and efficiently as the original) that reproducing it verbatim makes sense, as long as the source is acknowledged and properly cited. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. What’s wrong here is that the copycat did none of those things, even though a simple search tool reveals such misbehavior instantly and obviously.

Sorry guys, we old school geeks need to rant every now and then. This particular rant is meant is remind people that learning from others is good, but stealing others’ work without acknowledgement is bad. Very bad! Don’t do it! <End Rant>



Author: Kari Finn

A former Windows Insider MVP, Kari started in computing in the mid 80’s writing code for VAX / VMS systems. Since then, he’s worked in a variety of IT positions. He specializes in Windows image capture, customization, repair and deployment as well as Hyper-V virtualization. Kari is a proud Team Member at number #1 Windows site TenForums.com.

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