The Hunt for Red Plagiarist

Screenshot from 2 March 2022.

Back at the end of February I was idly looking at the talk page for the Wikiproject Military History when my eye spotted “HMS Topaze (1903)” amongst the pages being reviewed as a “Good Article nominee”. The criteria for a Good Article are that it should be:

  • Well written.
  • Verifiable with no original research.
  • Broad in its coverage.
  • Neutral.
  • Stable.
  • Illustrated, if possible.

As I do with any page, article or book I immediately looked at the notes and sources. I was surprised, therefore, to see “‘Fire Control in H.M. Ships’. The Technical History and Index: Alteration in Armaments of H.M. Ships During the War3 (23). 1919.” Note 3, “Fire Control in H.M. Ships 1919, p. 29.”, allegedly supporting the claim “The ship was equipped with voice pipes but no formal fire control system or range finder.” The reasons I was surprised were:

  1. Generally speaking the only place that you will find a volume of The Technical History and Index (TH&I), an Admiralty history on technical matters published in parts (list here) after the First World War, is in an archive (my copies come from The National Archives and the National Maritime Museum), so this automatically qualifies as original research and violates the Good Article criteria.
  2. Alteration in Armaments of H.M. Ships During the War was not part of the series title but the name of another part of the TH&I.

I checked p. 23 of both “Fire Control in H.M. Ships” and “Alteration in Armaments of H.M. Ships During the War” and there was nothing to do with Topaze on these pages. So not only was the article apparently relying on original research, but that research couldn’t even be verified! Automatic Good Article fail.

Why would someone invent a source, I wondered? How could they even invent a source like this? There aren’t that many publications which even use the TH&I, and certainly not with regard to specific ships. And then it hit me, as it should have from the beginning. I co-edit a website on fire control! One of the few places on the internet which uses the TH&I! Topaze was a member of the Gem class of cruisers, so I looked at The Dreadnought Project’s entry for the class. There are several sources given in the Armament section:

  1. Admiralty Weekly Orders. 28 Feb, 1913. The National Archives. ADM 182/4.
  2. The Technical History and Index, Vol. 3, Part 23. p. 29.
  3. Handbook for Fire Control Instruments, 1909. Plate 53.
  4. Handbook for Fire Control Instruments, 1909. p. 51, Plate 53.
  5. Handbook for Fire Control Instruments, 1914. p. 67.
  6. Handbook for Fire Control Instruments, 1909. p. 51.
  7. absent from list in Handbook of Capt. F.C. Dreyer’s Fire Control Tables, p. 3.
  8. Handbook for Fire Control Instruments, 1914. p. 67.
  9. Handbook for Fire Control Instruments, 1909. p. 51.

It would take all these sources, and nearly a dozen paragraphs, to support the claim in the Wikipedia article that “The ship was equipped with voice pipes but no formal fire control system or range finder.” Not just one single source (see note 2) which technically does not support it.

Initially I thought this was a new phenomenon, but I checked the user’s contributions to be sure. Take, for example, HMS Teazer (1917). Created in February 2017, information on fire control was added in September 2018. “Fire control included a single Dumaresq and a Vickers range clock.” Source? “‘Fire Control in H.M. Ships’. The Technical History and Index: Alteration in Armaments of H.M. Ships during the War3 (23): 31. 1919.” Let’s look at The Dreadnought Project page on the “R” class destroyer (1916), last edited in April 2018. The notes for the fire control section are:

  1. The Technical History and Index, Vol. 3, Part 23. p. 31.
  2. Progress in Naval Gunnery, 1914-1918. p. 35.
  3. The Technical History and Index, Vol. 3, Part 23. pp. 31, 32.

In this case the user has actually used the correct footnote to support the text, whilst still using the made up series title. In fact, if one used that title in the Wikipedia search engine one got 81 results. 81 articles containing a useless source covering up the use of material from The Dreadnought Project without attribution over the course of several years. This is infuriating, as at the bottom of every single page is the notice: “Content is available under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 unless otherwise noted.” This states:

You are free to:

Share — copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format

The licensor cannot revoke these freedoms as long as you follow the license terms.

Under the following terms:

Attribution — You must give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use.

NonCommercial — You may not use the material for commercial purposes.

NoDerivatives — If you remix, transform, or build upon the material, you may not distribute the modified material.

On 1 March I wrote on the user in question’s talk page:

Dear #####. It would appear that since 2018 at the latest and up to the present time you have been copying fire control information from The Dreadnought Project and incorporating it into Wikipedia articles without attribution, whilst at the same time citing (often inaccurately and incompletely) our primary source references. This practice needs to stop. We don’t mind our work being used on this website so long as it is properly attributed to The Dreadnought Project. Nor, for that matter, does WP:MILHIST. Regards,

The user’s response? To delete the offending details on the Topaze page (so now there are 80 articles with the bogus sourcing, see image from 2 March at top) and to reply:

Please WP:AGF as I meant no harm. Thank you for your feedback. I am always learning and appreciate any help. I would be honoured if you would edit the references where I am in the wrong so that they are from the correct verified sources. I hope you enjoy Wikipedia.

AGF is “Assume Good Faith”. They meant no harm, but apparently thought that plagiarising the fruit of others’ work, badly, was quite alright. It was also very nice of them to suggest that I edit dozens of pages to fix their mischief. The problem rapidly solved itself, however. Rather than properly utilise The Dreadnought Project as a source for fire control details, the user simply deleted every offending reference to the made up source, including the text it supported. By 3 March the number featuring it was already down to 39, by 4 March to 19, and by 7 March it was eight. Now there are none, which is a shame in a way because it robs many Wikipedia articles of some much-needed detail.

The state of play on 7 March, 2022.

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