Plagiarism — What It Is and What It’s NOT

Posted on January 14, 2011


Plagiarism is a serious issue, and I found some great detail on it at Plagiarism dot ORG. The site has just about everything you’d want to know about the topic.

I assume everyone knows about plagiarism and its effect on a writer’s reputation. In 1998, a New York Times journalist, Jason Blair, was caught plagiarizing content, among other infractions, and resigned his position with the paper.  He has never returned to journalism since. College students are expelled from Ivy League universities because of it. It is punishable by law and fines if found guilty in a court of law.

I believe it is something we all work hard to avoid it, but I also believe there are times when it happens unintentionally.

I thought I would provide an explanation, sound examples to clarify it and ways to avoid it. Keep in mind, however, plagiarism is not always black and white. Common sense is the best rudder and defense against finding yourself in the murky waters of plagiarism.

What It Is

Merriam-Webster’s (MW’s) online dictionary defines plagiarize as (quoted):

  • to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own.
  • use (another’s production) without crediting the source.
  • to commit literary theft.
  • present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.

The word “plagiary” originated from the word “kidnapper.” Kidnap is defined as (quoted from MW):

  • to seize and detain or carry away by unlawful force or fraud …

It is unlawful to post someone else’s work without attributing it to the original author. It is fraud.

Here are some ways you might plagiarize and not realize it:

  • Use a list from an article without properly noting the source – if you change the bullets around and modify the words a bit, a company may still consider it plagiarism – even if it is not considered plagiarism by law.
  • Use portions of your own previous work, even though the bulk of the work is original.
  • Combining and paraphrasing the bulk of other works, instead of creating an original article – e.g., paraphrasing individual blurbs on the same topic from the New York Times, CNN and MSNBC, but not using your own ideas, knowledge or other research on the topic.

What It IS NOT

I think all of us attended schools that required us to write research papers. In writing about the research we found, we paraphrased the information into a descriptive report for the homework assignment.

This is where it can get a bit gray. If you change the wording, but retain similar meaning, that is not necessarily plagiarism. Below is a theoretical example:

  • Let’s say that the original text stated, “Sam Smith, president of Smith and Cline, found clinical trials produced negative reactions in participants.”
  • If you simply repeat the statement verbatim, that is plagiarism.
  • If you state, “Smith and Cline’s President Sam Smith found that ‘clinical trials produced negative reactions in participants,’” but do not put quotations around the original text, that is plagiarism.
  • If, instead, you say, “Smith and Cline’s President Sam Smith noted that participants experienced negative reactions.” OR “Smith and Cline’s President Sam Smith stated that ‘clinical trials produced negative’ results,’” this is not plagiarism, as long as you put quotations around quoted material.
  • You could also state, “Based on Smith and Cline clinical trial results, participants experienced negative reactions.”
  • Generally, if you find the same information from at least two different sources, paraphrase the information and it shouldn’t be considered plagiarism.

Note the fourth bullet. I italicized the word that. When you use the words so-and-so “said that” or “noted that” or “stated that,” it transitions into a statement that the source made, and you don’t have to use quotes – as long as you change the wording of the original quote.

How to Avoid It

When in doubt, cite sources. Use quotations where appropriate and note the person and business from the original quote. You might even want to include a link to the original article to completely cover your backside and eliminate any perception of plagiarism.

If writing online content and pulling from different sources, read the source material carefully, put it away and create an original article using what I call the “free-flow” method. You simply write an article that highlights what you remember to be the most significant aspects of the source material. Revisit the source material to make sure you’ve included critical facts. By doing this, your risk for plagiarism is all but eliminated.

Keep in mind, there are common phrases used throughout the English language that you will find in online content. Plagiarism checkers usually take these common phrases into consideration and don’t count them as plagiarism. Clichés are common phrases. Certain expressions are common phrases.  Industries use common phrases. If you find a common phrase throughout several of your sources, don’t be afraid to use it. For example:

  • [So-and-so] are a dime a dozen.
  • It took 10 years to complete.
  • [Such-and-such] is a tough business.

Banking, the auto industry, technical professionals and other groups use common phrases to express when discussing certain topics. Using those common phrases should not be considered plagiarism, but you should be very clear that they are common phrases. If three of your sources use the common phrase, it’s pretty safe to say it a phrase commonly used in that industry. For good measure, do an online search on the exact phrase. If several results come up from different sources with that exact phrase, I think it’s safe to say it’s a common phrase.

If you quote someone, but change any word or wording within the quote, use [brackets] to note the changed word/wording within the quote.

In citing sources for academic research, follow the instructor’s advice.

What to Do If It Happens to You

Have you had your work plagiarized? I can tell you, I have. I have several articles in EzineArticles and all of them were plagiarized at one time or another. You can’t prevent fraudsters from plagiarizing your work, but you can take action to stop it once you discover it.

Notify the site immediately that you found your work on their website cited as someone else’s. A reputable site will promptly remove the article and band the noted author from producing further content. No (reputable) site wants to be known for allowing plagiarized content. It denigrates the reputation of the site. Include in your notification to the site that you will notify the site’s ISP if they do not take down the article. If this does not do the job, contact the site’s ISP. The ISP can take the site down if it does not comply with the law.

I found great advice on how to to this on a Webmaster World thread. Detailed Whois information can be found here at Network Solutions.

Anyone else been plagiarized and have advice on how they effectively had it taken down?

Posted in: Writing Tips