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At bookstores (and libraries) near you: Say hello to digital plagiarism

By Lisa Li

Today, I spotted a book on the shelf of new arrivals in the National Library: The founding of Singapore: The Journey of a Small Island to Greatness.

The founding of SingaporeThe eyebrow-raising title drew my attention. Then I read the fine print: “Edited by Ken Torrin from High Quality Wikipedia Articles”.

Yes, you read that right.

Upon further checking, it appears that Ken Torrin is not just an expert on Singapore but also a highly prolific writer with diverse expertise; he has churned out books on a dizzying number of topics ranging from waste management technology to Vietnam warplanes to family therapy — a total of 1062 books as listed in Kinokuniya’s online bookstore.

A closer look will reveal that the publisher is a certain Webster's Digital Services, which in 2012 had already raised the suspicions of other bloggers.

For example, in “Is Webster’s Digital Services The New Hephaestus Books?”, published on 10 July 2012, the writer points out that Webster's Digital Services published no less than 907 books by a certain Elizabeth Dummel, which appeared to be merely a repackaging of free digital content from Wikipedia.

Similarly, in “The Rise of the Virtual-Plagiarist” published on 13 August 2012, the blogger highlights that a certain Gaby Alez is the author of 2,311 books (as of August 2012), with the book covers also stating that it was “edited by Gaby Alez from high quality Wikipedia articles”. And yes, you guessed it, Gaby Alez is also published by Webster's Digital Services.

The more you search for Webster’s Digital Services, the more you find. All, that is, except the key details of who the publisher is, where it is located, and who are these “authors” are.

So it seems like the National Library Board (NLB) may have bought an allegedly repackaged collection of Wikipedia articles, which have now been distributed to 24 libraries across Singapore. In fact, six of them are currently on loan; perhaps it was not a bad decision to stock these books after all.

Still, it is a question of whether the NLB wants to inadvertently support alleged digital plagiarism (although this is technically not illegal by Wikipedia standards) and how the NLB makes decisions to buy and stock books, especially when suspicions of digital plagiarism by the publisher were raised more than 3 years ago.

But this is not just about the National Library. As mentioned earlier, Ken Torrin’s books are also available on the online bookstores of Kinokuniya, Popular, Open Trolley, Amazon and others.

Welcome to the world of digital plagiarism; let the buyer beware.