Hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman must have been very angry after reading Business Insider's story about his wife, Neri Oxman, "Academic celebrity Neri Oxman plagiarized from Wikipedia, scholars, a textbook, and other sources without any attribution". Ackman then wrote two tweets on X totaling over 5,100 words, challenging Business Insider, defending his wife, saying that he would check the work of MIT and Harvard faculty for plagiarism, and even questioning whether somebody could plagiarize Wikipedia.
Can one use a definition from an online dictionary or encyclopedia without attribution [in an academic work]? I honestly don’t know the answer. I have never seen WikiPedia or Dictionary.com cited in any paper. Before Business Insider emailed last night, I never thought about this before. And on this point, what was the standard 15 years ago for citing WikiPedia? Was it different then versus now?
— Bill Ackman on X
Ackman's interest in plagiarism started with his protests against antisemitism at Harvard and other campuses. He called for Harvard President Claudine Gay to resign after she and three other presidents of major universities testified in a congressional investigation on antisemitism on campus. Ackman and many others believed their plans to counter antisemitism were not strong enough. After right-wing sources accused Gay of plagiarism, Ackman also called for Gay's removal based on the plagiarism accusation. These events were widely covered in the national and international press and did not involve Wikipedia. We limit this discussion to the question Can you plagiarize Wikipedia?
Several commentators at the discussion threads on the platform formerly known as Twitter appear to have confused copyright violations with plagiarism. Copyright violations are a matter of law generally decided in civil courts; plagiarism is an ethical matter generally covered by university policies. Most text in Wikipedia is copyrighted, with the exceptions of short "fair use" quotes and a limited amount of text taken from the public domain, for example in articles that state at the end "This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Name of article". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press." Other material is copyrighted by the Wikipedia editor who first added it and is licensed CC-BY-SA, which requires that the text be linked and the author attributed. Attribution can be done by linking to the page history.
Though this reporter is not a lawyer, it appears that plagiarism can be avoided in most, but not all, situations simply by complying with copyright law. Copying Wikipedia text into an academic work has long been viewed as possible plagiarism, even if done by university freshmen, as shown in a 2010 article in The New York Times. The same article suggests that "using words [you] did not write is a serious misdeed" if those words are not attributed. The book Victory at Sea by Yale Professor Paul Kennedy, published by the Yale University Press, is an example of how to attribute. The 544 page book includes references to more than 80 Wikipedia articles.
Academics who wish to check whether copying text from Wikipedia is plagiarism need to check their university policies, but copying text from Wikipedia without attribution generally is a violation of the CC-BY-SA license and copyright law. If you present the words or ideas in Wikipedia as if they are your own, this is generally considered to be plagiarism.
An interesting sidelight to the above story is that Bill Ackman in the same set of tweets also wrote "I also wish I knew how to reach a human being at Wikipedia as my Wikipedia biography needs correcting, and could be meaningfully improved if there was someone I could speak to."
There are several ways you can communicate with Wikipedians fairly directly. If you register an account on Wikipedia you can write on the talkpage, Talk:Bill Ackman, pretty much whatever you would like, but I suggest it be in the form "The following text [blah blah blah] is incorrect, it should be replaced by
[yadda yadda yadda]. This can be referenced by [link to a story in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Financial Times – or a similarly reliable source]".
You can also continue using declared paid editors such as NinaSpezz who says they were editing on your behalf through 2021, and who says they have been editing for you from May 2022 through at least October 2023. They have been fairly polite compared to other paid editors, but you might ask them to be a bit less aggressive. They have no special editing rights that other editors do not have.
If you'd like something more private, you can contact our Volunteer Response Team (VRT) by email at info-en-qwikimedia.org.
Or if you'd like to be interviewed by The Signpost for our next issue I'd be happy to drop off my contact details at your office with my formatting and other requirements. – S
The Times raises many questions in How Wikipedia is being changed to downgrade Iranian human rights atrocities (archive), also available in a slightly abridged version in The Australian. The story claims that an Iranian government cyber army is removing information from Wikipedia about atrocities committed against the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran, also known as Mojahedin-e-Khalq or MEK, which opposes the government. The article is based on information provided by an unknown Wikipedian identified only as "Marco", which is not their username. Someone claiming to be Marco recently has also contacted The Signpost without offering us any information.
This dispute has a long history with a stop made at ArbCom in the 2021 Iranian politics case, which resulted in Iranian politics being named a contentious topic. The only information we can add is that over the past year several editors of the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran article have been given harsh bans or blocks of varying severity. All of them appear to have supported the MEK side of the issue. Alex-h and ParadaJulio were globally banned by Wikimedia Foundation office actions. Stefka Bulgaria, Fad Ariff, and Iraniangal777, have received indefinite blocks from a checkuser, which usually indicates an egregious case of sockpuppetry. MA Javadi received a basic indefinite block for sockpuppetry. – S