The “Cover Up” of Common Knowledge

Ross_Bio_Pic This column features ethics scenarios and issues that may affect technical communicators in the many aspects of their jobs. If you have a possible solution to a scenario, your own case, or feedback in general, please contact Derek G. Ross at

Editorial Note

Many of us have been taught since our earliest school days that we need to cite any information in our work that is not “common knowledge.” Despite our teachers’ best efforts, and our own acknowledgement of institutional codes of ethics, however, plagiarism remains an omnipresent threat in our highly mediated, Google-ready, knowledge economy. As technical writers, we are often required to fill in the blanks on reports we write or edit, and many of us turn to the Internet for on-the-fly content. This ready access to complex information leads to a nagging question: What really constitutes “common knowledge?”

In this month’s Ethics column, Megan Gehrke takes us through a case that may sound familiar to many of us—what do we do when we’re part of a team, the clock is ticking, and we know that some of those all-important fill-ins and clarifications aren’t quite right? What would you do?

As always, we welcome your responses. Let us know your answers to the questions we’ve posed, your thoughts on our roles as technical communicators in general, or send us your own ethics cases or column ideas. Please send your responses to Responses will be printed in an upcoming issue of Intercom as space permits.

—Derek G. Ross, Column Editor

By Megan Gehrke | Guest Columnist

Alice Hardy is a technical editor at Lambert Research Firm, a small for-profit agency that specializes in conducting and writing research reports for clients, often large companies in their local area. Lambert Research Firm is frequently hired to research environmental, health, legal, and political issues for clients, and write up reports on the issues for clients to buy and use for their own purposes. Clients frequently use materials written by Lambert Research Firm in public service announcements, advertising and fundraising campaigns, and in presenting legislation to various branches of local and federal government. As a technical editor, Alice is not responsible for conducting research herself, but instead edits the written reports by her coworkers prior to submission to the various companies with which Lambert Research Firms contracts.

Rebecca Jones is a senior writer at Lambert, specializing in writing copy on environmental health risks. As a formal environmental lawyer, within Lambert Research Firm and the community at large, Rebecca is regarded as an authority on the subject and well respected. She has recently completed a report on waste disposal and its effects on human drinking waters, written for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This document was one of the largest contracts Lambert Research Firm had ever received, and many within the company hope it would be a gateway into other government projects of comparable size. Although Lambert Research Firm has been successful locally, the company has had little opportunity to exhibit itself on a national level. Alice has been tasked with copyediting Rebecca’s report, set to be released to the EPA in four days. The document has already been edited by two of Alice’s colleagues for content and clarity; Alice is responsible for providing a final proof on format and grammatical concerns before it is approved by her supervisor and released to the EPA for use. The bills for the document have already been paid by the agency and everything is in place for the research to be supplied to them on time.

Being a relatively new hire at Lambert, Alice was delighted to be given such a great opportunity in looking over one of the largest contracts the company had received to date. In preparation, Alice Googled “Waste disposal and human drinking water” to get a general sense of the issues. However superficial it might be, she figured something was better than nothing; she did not want to mess up this great editing opportunity by offering a correction that unintentionally revealed her ignorance on the subject. Alice did not feel she was an expert in the area, but was learning that astute editors, like those mentoring her in the workplace, do not need all of the context in order to correct grammatical issues. However, to be safe, Alice spent two hours reading online articles and links. After conducting her own mini-research session, Alice returned to the document and began editing, finding minimal errors. It was obvious that the other two editors had done a thorough job. However, as she proofed Rebecca’s report, Alice began to recognize certain parts of the text. Here and there, lines jumped out to Alice as being something she had previously read. Searching for footnotes and in text citations, Alice found none.

The report contained an extensive list of citations, research which had taken Rebecca months, all of which was correctly documented. However, as she kept reading, Alice continued to find lines she distinctly remembered from what she read online before beginning her edits. Believing herself to be over-reacting or remembering incorrectly, Alice revisited her search history and pulled up the articles in question. Clear as day, the lines had been lifted. Was this intentional on Rebecca’s part? Had she forgotten her quotation marks? Or had the research been slipped in purposefully to bulk out the document under a tight deadline?

Alice finished her copyedit and review of the document that afternoon, finding minimal changes to report; she went back to the pages troubling her conscience. After a second review, Alice could say for certain lines were lifted and inserted in the text without documentation or citation. This was against Lambert’s plagiarism policy, clearly outlined in the company handbook. “Because we are built on a foundation of promoting ethical research practices and writing to all our clients, all pieces produced by Lambert Research Firm employees should be nothing less. Plagiarism and unethical research methods will not be tolerated.” Alice was interrupted by a sudden knock on her cubicle wall; startled, she shut the report and looked up to see Rebecca standing in the entrance.

“Done with that?” Rebecca asked. “Boss man is breathing down my neck to have it submitted a day early to make the best impression possible. I’ll take it now if you are.”

Sweating, Alice responded, “I actually need a bit more time.” As an afterthought, she added, “I will get it to him by 3 today though. Thanks for checking in.”

“All right, glad to hear it.” Rebecca replied, and walked away.

With her stomach twisted in a knot, Alice contemplated her options. She was, after all, only supposed to be providing a copyedit on the text. It had been approved by two other editors and Alice was sure a plagiarism issue would not have slipped past them. Reporting the issue would delay the project, and could potentially cost Lambert Research Firm the entire contract, and future government reports the firm was counting on receiving after the publication of the water report. However, association with a plagiarized report would damage the Firm’s credibility and potentially hurt business as well. Alice decided to ask one of the other editors if they had noticed the potential plagiarism issue.

Walking into Maureen’s office, Alice presented her with the lines she had noticed in Rebecca’s draft. Maureen, looking surprised, and stated, “Oh yeah, I saw those, too, but with these huge research reports, no one ever reads them close enough to get every footnote in there. It’s fine as is; if anything comes of it, we can cool the flames by claiming it was common knowledge or something. Don’t sweat it; this sort of thing happens all the time.” With that, Maureen turned back to her computer, essentially dismissing Alice from the room.

Feeling even more unsettled, Alice returned to her office and closed the door. Although she had been assured it wasn’t an issue, she felt uncomfortable signing her name on the edited draft as being complete and accurate.

Should Alice alert her boss to the copied lines she found in the text? Is it better or worse to approach Rebecca directly, based on her authority in the office? How did the other editors miss this mistake in the other reads of the text? Is Lambert Research Firm ethically bound by their policy on plagiarism to suspend the report and project until a conclusion has been reached, no matter the business obligations? What should Alice’s next move be?

Plagiarism in the Headlines

When many technical communicators think of plagiarism, their minds harken back to the syllabi of their college days, documents explicitly detailing proper citation methods and the steep consequences should they be ignored or overlooked. With this, it is too easy to consider plagiarism as housed and limited to the ivory tower and academia. In reality, the consequences can increase in the workplace, costing companies and technical communicators business, customer faith, and professional reputation.

The Globe and Mail, a leader in Canadian national and international news, was cited in April 2016 for failing to cite multiple sources within the same column. The Editor-in-Chief David Walmsley issued a public apology, stating that the column fell short of their production standards and steps will be taken to ensure the author will not make such a mistake again (Stead, 2015). Similarly in 2002, historical author Stephen Ambrose got himself into hot water for plagiarizing material in his book The Wild Blue, opening an investigation that found further issues of plagiarism in his other published works (Kirkpatrick, 2002). In the same year, Doris Kearns Goodwin faced similar allegations, a headlining story that trickled out in the media over several months, with each iteration deepening the credibility gap developing between her and her audience (Lewis, 2002). In both of these instances, it was found that plagiarism was not a one-time mistake, but rather a consistent lack of regard for ethical documentation practices. In the above ethical case, perhaps Alice has unearthed just one instance in a long history of plagiarism that has gone unchecked at Lambert Research Firm for years. Does this increase her obligation to report the inconsistency in research attribution?

Although the plagiarism violations of technical communicators may not be splashed across the nightly news in the same manner that the downfalls of pseudo-celebrity writers are, this isn’t to say that they won’t hold just as serious consequences for the writers and companies involved. Plagiarism and unethical research practices in the workplace undermine business conducted with consumers, planting seeds of doubt in the minds of partners and clients as to an organization’s credibility. Although a college professor with a red pen hovering over each citation is a thing of most technical communicator’s pasts, a dutiful and ethical technical communicator will write with the belief that the same examining eye might be searching every document for exact, accurate, and ethical research and writing practices.

How can technical communicators ensure proper citation practices in their workplace when it might not be anyone’s assigned job to oversee? How can the ethics of plagiarism be communicated successfully to writers and communicators working outside of academia?


Kirkpatrick, D. D. 5 Jan. 2002. 2 accuse Stephen Ambrose, popular historian, of plagiarism. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Lewis, M. 27 Feb. 2002. Doris Kearns Goodwin and the credibility gap. Forbes. Retrieved from

Stead, S. 25 Apr. 2015. Public editor: Prose must be attributed. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from

MEGAN GEHRKE is a graduate student in Boise State University’s technical communication program. She works on campus as a graduate writing center consultant, as well as for HP Inc. as a technical writer on the customer education design team. She will be presenting in Fall 2016 at the International Writing Center Association’s annual conference on how creating online communities and virtual spaces for writing center consultants can advance tutoring pedagogy. Her research and career interests center on visual rhetoric; document, Web, and presentation design; and publication management.

Add Comment

Click here to post a comment

Download the Mar/Apr 2020 PDF

2020 PDF Downloads