With the explosion of online publishing, many people are now posting words on the web and calling themselves journalists. But a good proportion of them are more like plagiarists.

I recently got a first-hand lesson in this. While preparing to pitch a story idea to an editor, I googled “mainframes and private cloud computing.” Not the most interesting topic in the world, and not one that’s been widely covered. So I wasn’t surprised when a story that I’d done earlier in the year popped up several times on the first page of the search results. (My publisher owns lots of magazines and buys the rights to run my stories in all of them.)

But I was looking for fresh information, so I went to the second and third page of the search results. I clicked on a link at a website purporting to cover all-things-cloud. As I read the article I found there, I had a strong feeling of déjà vu. Here was an executive at IBM being quoted saying the exact same things about mainframe computers that he had told me. I know these guys are often coached on their “messaging,” but these were specific comments to specific questions that I’d asked during our interview. It was clear that the writer had lifted them from my article. There was no mention of my article nor the publication in which it appeared. It sounded as if the author had interviewed the IBM executive himself.

I notified my editor of the plagiarism and she kicked it to her higher ups to see what to do. The answer: not much.

“At any given time hundreds (possibly thousands) of Web sites are republishing entire stories

[from our publications] without our permission,” says the response that my editor e-mailed to me. “About 50% of the time, we wind up doing nothing.” The publisher will take action under several circumstances, including when it’s a professional publisher’s site, when the site is running ads alongside the content, or when the site is plagiarizing entire stories repeatedly. But most of the people who do this “are lay publishers who’ve never heard of the Fair Use law and have no understanding of search engine optimization. They often think they’re doing us a favor, in fact.”

In other words, many of these so-called publishers think plagiarism is OK. How depressing.

Nevertheless, my publisher suggests that editors contact the offending site and nicely ask them to remove the story or at least acknowledge and link to the original source.

In my case, there was no contact information on the website for the writer, nor the editor. In fact, there was no information on who was publishing or funding the website. Clicking the “about” tab told me only that the site was launched in 2009, is done with “a team of content creators from around the globe” and “is one of the fastest growing cloud computing media sites on the Web.” I clicked on “contact,” and got only a form to fill out. There was no address, phone number or e-mail. This is not uncommon. Even when a publisher wants to take legal action against plagiarism, the lawyers sometimes can’t find anyone to which they can address a cease and desist order.

My editor and I tracked down the writer through LinkedIn – he happens to be an MBA student at a major U.S. university – and sent him an e-mail about the offense. Within an hour, we received a response from his publisher:

“After reviewing the article and discussing with [the writer], we have no problems citing your article regarding the quote. [The writer] had mentioned that he did not realize that this was an exclusive. Eitherway [sic], we’ll make the change to the article citing [your publication] as a source of the quote. We’ve also indicated to [the writer] to clearly define the source of any future quotes.”

It was not signed by an actual person, but rather with the name of the website itself, so we still do not know who runs the operation. Likewise, the return e-mail was the generic email@thewebsite.com.

Lay publisher, indeed. The fact that this publisher thinks that it’s OK to use any content that is not marked as “exclusive” shows his lack of publishing experience, not to say his disrespect of copyright law.

This whole thing piqued my curiosity, so I used an online plagiarism detector, called Duplichecker, to search for other sites that might be lifting the same article. I put in the quote from the IBM guy, and found that the entire story had been lifted, verbatim, unattributed to me or the original publication, in a Middle East computer news site as well. Just as I was working up a slow burn, however, I realized that it was affiliated with a sister publication of the original publication. Of course, my original publisher has the right to republish my story all over the world in its own related publications.

As I start 2012, I’m making a New Year’s resolution to launch my own little battle against online plagiarism. I plan to regularly use Duplichecker or something similar (googling “online plagiarism detector” brings up several free ones) to see where pieces of my stories are popping up. I may not be able to stop it, but I can at least try to educate the offenders, one plagiarist at a time.