What is Plagiarism? Breaking Down a Writer’s Worst Offense

What is Plagiarism? Breaking Down a Writer’s Worst Offense image medium 898175328 225x300What is Plagiarism? Breaking Down a Writer’s Worst OffenseWhen I was teaching, I’d always try to stress to my students how important it is to completely understand plagiarism and why it’s a horrible idea. I’d cite instances of reporters being fired from major publications and schools (especially colleges) suspending or expelling students for plagiarizing work. These, of course, are lessons and tales that all students hear about…

… and forget as adults, it would seem.

Now I’m a writer. I spend a good deal of time interacting with other writers, reading blogs, and immersing myself in what it means to publish online. It’s rather astounding to me that there are people who make careers out of online publishing (or try to) and still don’t truly understand what plagiarism is.

The general belief is that, “Oh, it’s just when you copy someone’s writing.”

Plagiarism is much more finely nuanced than simply copying someone’s writing. In fact, that’s something of a frustrating reduction.

It’s also one that serial plagiarists commonly use to excuse themselves from other dubious “borrowing” practices.

Because so many writers with good intentions don’t fully understand all the ways in which a person can plagiarize, they’re committing the act unknowingly. That’s a pretty big risk to take, as it only takes one major publication calling you out before you can land yourself in a world of trouble, legal fees, and lost trust.

What is plagiarism?

Ignorance isn’t bliss when it comes to plagiarism. In fact, it can be costly. So let’s take a look at some different ways that it takes place. Please note that these examples will focus specifically on online plagiarism, but the ideas are the same for print. I just find that the ease of locating, copying, and pasting information online makes it a more susceptible medium.

#1: The complete straight-up ‘copy-and-paste’: This is what people generally think of when they think of plagiarism. In this form, someone copies another document word-for-word and uses it as his or her own.

#2: The partial ‘copy-and-paste’: In this method, the writer (and I use that term loosely) will come up with some of his or her own content, but will pad it with some of someone else’s work.

#3: The change-a-roo: For whatever reason, some people really believe that you can copy someone else’s work and use it as your own as long as you change some of the words. Save yourself the time flipping through a thesaurus. This is still plagiarism. Don’t believe me? Ask Fareed Zakaria, who was suspended by both Time and CNN when parts of an article he wrote matched up a little too closely with sections of a longer piece by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker.

When it comes to online writing, there is “spun content” — the words are lifted and spun into “unique” content (sometimes very poorly), but still plagiarized. If you’re spinning content to trick Google because you’re worried about the duplicate policy, but you’re not worried about plagiarism, something is very wrong.

#4: Composite artistry: Some people are stupid enough to copy work from well-read sources like The New York Times or Mashable and try to pass it off as original work. Others are much craftier (and, many would agree, more calculating). They’ll hit up a series of smaller, lesser known websites, lift content, and stitch it together as their own.

#5: Ideas, headings, and flow: This technique combines some of the others, namely the change-a-roo and composite artistry. It frequently happens that a writer (again, still using the term loosely) will visit other websites looking for inspiration for a piece he or she is working on. In and of itself, this isn’t a problem. Most writers are also big readers, and we take inspiration from the things we read.

The problem here is when the writer “borrows” the setup. He takes the shell of a piece — the headings or sub-sections — and uses it as his own. The wording might be exactly the same, or it might be changed. He might rearrange the order. He might copy a few sub-titles or -sections from one site and a few from another and piece them together. The content under these headings could be completely original — maybe he just needed the ideas. Then again, it could be lifted and reworded from the source, as well.

So while it might not be an exact match (and therefore more difficult to catch), when you look at the original next to the piece it “inspired,” the similarities are typically undeniable. The ideas have been stolen.

Why do people plagiarize?

There are any number of reasons why plagiarists do what they do. Among them:

  • A lack of original ideas or no strong thoughts on an assigned topic
  • A lack of understanding when it comes to an assigned topic
  • They aren’t strong writers but want to be seen as authorities or thought leaders
  • They “didn’t have time to write”
  • They’re taking on freelance work or otherwise being paid to write about such a wide variety of topics in a short amount of time, and they know little to nothing about many of them
  • They couldn’t be bothered to create 100% original content because the content wasn’t as important as just getting the links published (shady SEO alert)
  • They’re trying to improve their site’s search engine rank with “fresh” and frequently-updated content, but they don’t want to take the time to actually write it
  • Plain laziness

Note that there is no acceptable excuse for plagiarism.

How does plagiarism hurt readers?

What is Plagiarism? Breaking Down a Writer’s Worst Offense image medium 5421517469 300x198What is Plagiarism? Breaking Down a Writer’s Worst OffenseIt goes without saying that plagiarism destroys your personal brand and your credibility as a writer, but it also hurts your readers. Do you have favorite blogs or writers that you frequently read? I do. And after spending so much time reading a person’s work, I come to trust them. Their ideas interest me and I support their work. I might even share their articles on social media or cite them in my own writing.

So if I were to find out that one of those writers had been stealing someone else’s work that entire time, not only would the trust be completely broken, but I’d also feel fraudulent (and stupid) for sharing that person’s work and believing [in] them.

Whether your readership and/or social following is large or small, you owe it to your readers to provide them with original content and to be an authentic voice. If you want to quote another writer or paraphrase some content, be sure to cite it. You can do this by linking or by formal citations at the end, but not doing it at all is bad business.

Are content scrapers plagiarizing?

Content scrapers are a thorn in the side for many online writers. What these individuals and sites do is “scrape” content to re-post on their own sites. The problem is that they’re doing this without permission (meanwhile, other more ethical sites are obtaining permission before publishing anything).

But is it plagiarism? Technically, if the author’s name appears with the content (and it’s often grabbed with everything else), he or she is being credited — even inadvertently. That would mean that it’s not plagiarism per se, but it’s also not exactly ethical.

That’s a wrap.

Hopefully you’ve got a better understanding of plagiarism and its nuances now. As a reader, expose yourself to a variety of content. You’ll develop a discerning eye and know when you smell a rat.

In the mean time, tools like Copyscape can help you to check for copies of your work (a paid version allows you to check copy for matches before publication), and Dupli Checker can help you to make sure that your writing is plagiarism-free.

What did I miss? What questions do you have? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Image Source:
photo credit: DerrickT via photopin cc
photo credit: Kalexanderson via photopin cc

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