Stop Thief! Writers and Plagiarism

by | Mar 4, 2015

By Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas

Plagiarism. You know it when you see it, but it’s as slippery as a Canadian sidewalk in winter when you try to define or explain it.

We recently became aware of how difficult plagiarism is to explain when we discovered several plagiarized passages in a book that crossed our desks. The author insisted the passages were not plagiarized, which left it to us to explain why we thought they were.

As editors, part of our job is to alert authors to potential issues in a manuscript. Plagiarism is one of many issues that we need to flag, and this topic comes up with surprising frequency in editor forums.

Defining Plagiarism

Plagiarism is often confused with copyright infringement and piracy, and even with simple lying and fabrication. All of these practices strike at an author’s integrity, but they’re not plagiarism.

So what is plagiarism? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines what it means to plagiarize as follows:


  • 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

 
In The Little Book of Plagiarism, Judge Richard A. Posner notes the difficulty of defining this term, and he emphasizes that there’s more to plagiarism than theft. Plagiarism, he explains, is a kind of deceit that’s never undertaken by accident.

That’s good news, right? If you don’t intend to plagiarize someone’s ideas or writing, you likely won’t plagiarize. You can stop reading right here. And don’t worry, Posner also argues deftly for the myth of the photographic mind, so you can rest easy.

Famous Plagiarizers

If you’ve ever crossed the line and pinched someone’s ideas or words, you’re in good company. In the Little Book of Plagiarism, Posner lists several examples of famous people who have allegedly plagiarized (a scandalous, juicy read). We say “alleged” because it’s not clear that what they’ve done constitutes bona fide plagiarism—its definition has changed over time, partly as a result of cultural expectations. Still, we won’t reveal Posner’s list here, because in doing so we might be tiptoeing into plagiarism territory ourselves.

You see, Posner has gone to great lengths to research and collate his list. If we expose it here, we might benefit from his academic efforts and prevent you from buying and reading his book. (It’s a great read—worth the price of the book!) Sure, we could research our own list of alleged plagiarizers, but we don’t want to send you the wrong message. Instead, we’ll point you to the source.

And this is where the pavement gets slippery. Plagiarism can be much more than copying someone’s words. It’s possible to copy ideas, characters, and plots. And in the case of academic plagiarism, you can copy someone’s hard won research.

Examples of Plagiarism

Because most definitions don’t get at the nuances, the best way to understand plagiarism is by example. Consider these examples of “textual plagiarism” from Princeton University.

Note how each example differs from the others, but that each is still plagiarism. Remember the author we were working with? Showing him these examples encouraged him to remove the offending passages from his book. No explanation needed.

It also helps to see a graphic representation of plagiarism. Curtis Newbold, The Visual Communication Guy, has created an infographic that places acts of plagiarism on a continuum, ranging from sloppy citing to word-for-word copying. So now you’ll have a way of determining just how bad your plagiarism tendencies are!

Joking aside, Newbold’s infographic offers many examples of plagiarism. If Posner is correct in saying that plagiarism is always intentional, then all you need to do is to read through the infographic and vow never to do any of those things.

How Does Plagiarism Happen?

Plagiarism is most likely to occur during the research or information gathering stage of writing. It happens when the stakes are high, when it’s the night before a writing deadline, for example. It’s no surprise, then, that most plagiarism takes place in an academic setting—usually by students, but sometimes by professors, too. Oh, and let’s not forget journalism, where plagiarism persists and new accusations seem to surface weekly. Like students, journalists are under constant deadlines to produce written work.

Tips for Preventing Plagiarism

In his book, Posner counsels that if you plagiarize, chances are very high that you will be found out. If Newbold’s infographic isn’t enough to give you pause, we’ve included a few tips, below, for preventing plagiarism:

  • Give yourself adequate time to research and write. Last-minute panic is a hallmark of plagiarism.
  • Conduct research carefully—this is the time to be obsessively meticulous.
    • Flag quotes while taking notes—use sticky notes in print books to mark passages you’ll return to.
    • Find a way—Evernote, for example—of capturing quotations while doing digital research. (See this five-minute guide to understanding Evernote.)
    • Record sources while taking notes—you won’t remember where you found something.
    • Step away from your research—resist writing with open books next to you, or articles on screen, and write about the topic in your own words. Go back later to fill in details. Don’t copy and paste from source material into your working file. It’s too risky.

  • Harness the power of Google, even if you’re working with print books. How? The Google Books database now includes more than 30 million books. Suppose you’ve forgotten where in your print book you saw that great quote you need to use. Find the digitized version of your book in Google Books, and enter the keywords you recall into the search window for that book. Google will return snippets that show your search terms, making it possible to go back and find them in print. (This same process makes it possible to identify plagiarism in a few keystrokes.)

When Copying is Okay

Is it ever okay to copy someone else’s ideas or words? Yes! Provided it doesn’t deceive the reader, or cause harm, financial or otherwise, to the author of the original work. (See Posner’s book for a lengthy explanation of all the ways you can deceive the reader and cause harm to the author).

If a book is in the public domain, you are permitted to copy a plot, or build a story around another author’s characters. Surprised?

As of January 1, 2015, Ian Fleming’s James Bond character went into the public domain in Canada. Canadian authors can now write stories featuring James Bond and sell those stories in Canada. (Due to American copyright laws, American authors will have to wait another 20 years for this privilege.) If you’d like to learn more about using public domain works in your writing, Helen Sedwick has written an excellent article on the topic. Keep in mind, though, you cannot copy the plot of a copyrighted work. But you knew that, right?

How to Spot Plagiarism

Authors are most upset about plagiarism when they catch someone else plagiarizing their writing. Here’s how to spot plagiarism:

  • By far the most popular plagiarism detection site is Turnitin, a massive database of material extracted from the Internet, combined with a growing body of student papers. Students submit their assignments via Turnitin; Turnitin assesses the papers for originality by checking strings of phrases against those in the database, and issues a report to teachers. Turnitin also retains all the student papers submitted to it, hence the breadth and depth of its database.
  • Other online plagiarism checkers include Grammarly and Plagiarism.org. Copyscape can tell you almost instantly if other sites are posting your blog content.
  • You can also conduct a Google search of some key phrases from your work, and see if it turns up online. This is how editors often find instances of plagiarism in suspicious manuscripts submitted to them.

And here’s what to do if you spot someone plagiarizing your work:

  • Contact the person who has taken your content and either posted or published it. Indicate that you’re aware of their activities, and ask them to take it down. This article by Lorelle VanFossen describes in detail the course of action you might take. Penny Sansevieri has also posted recently both about having her content co-opted and what resulted when she contacted the guilty party.
  • Often taking the action described above will produce a satisfactory result. But if it doesn’t—and say, for instance, someone publishes a book with your content in it—you might need to seek legal advice. As editors, this is beyond the scope of our knowledge. We do know, unfortunately first hand, that if you suspect your work has been plagiarized, it is worth the time and trouble to document all instances, let the guilty party know of your concerns, and seek legal advice about your options.

Conclusion

Towards the end of The Little Book of Plagiarism, Judge Posner says something we might take as encouraging. Because of the increasing ease—via technology—of both producing and detecting plagiarized work, “we may be entering the twilight of plagiarism.” In the meantime, remain diligent. Plagiarism happens. If you’re the victim of it, you can generally resolve the problem by sending a polite email to “your fan.”

More importantly, plagiarism is almost always deliberate and intentional. And it’s preventable. Copy that?

More Resources

Plagiarism Guides
Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices
Copyleaks

Disclaimer: The information presented this post is for educational purposes only. Be sure to consult an attorney in your jurisdiction for legal advice.

Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla DouglasCorina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas of Beyond Paper Editing are Contributing Writers for The Book Designer. They are also authors, copyeditors and proofreaders who work with and instruct self-publishing authors.

You can learn more about Corina and Carla here.

 
Photo: bigstockphoto.com. Amazon links contain my affiliate code.

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23 Comments

  1. Danny

    Practicing plagiarism is a violation of writing ethics. I have witnessed students being penalized and sent home as a result of copy pasting others content. I always advise students to paraphrase the author information in their own words and reference accordingly in order to avoid any plagiarism. It is also critical to ensure the correct referencing style is followed. Thank you Corina and Carla for taking your time in writing this helpful article.

  2. Alexis Maui

    To what extent is copying material via the WWW for use in assignments justifiable? Is this more or less dishonest than, for example, copying software, music or the like?

  3. John Hansen

    I am new to all of this and found your site while researching plagiarism. I really love to research subjects that interest me from politics and philosophy to cooking and gardening. I am contemplating putting together some comprehensive eBooks on aspects of these subjects and was, of course, concerned with plagiarism. Compilating information seems to be nothing but plagiarism. The uniqueness is in the final product. How do you deal with that? And I see hundreds of identical recipes when comparing and researching cooking subjects such as bread and chili and most times not giving any credit to the original creator. I appreciate any comments you may have as well as additional sites that discuss same. Thanks!

    • Linda Branson

      Hello, I was doing a research on plagiarism in published media and came across this article. The topic that interests me the most is how well plagiarism software providers protect ours, authors, PRIVACY. This is not about privacy of our personal data (name, address, etc), but actually the privacy of our intellectual work. Did you know that most plagiarism checkers (even the largest and most reputable ones) actually store every document you upload for a scan in their giant database. They actually make profit not only when you paid them for a package, but also when they fill their database for free using your very files. That is why, it is wiser to use those services that promise NOT to save your documents in their databases nor to publish your uploaded material anywhere. I rely on this website
      plagiarismdetection.org It is an overall excellent plagiarism checker plus they offer this privacy protection thing that should not be overlooked.

  4. Michael

    Thank you so much, Corina and Carla! You’ve created a really informative post!

    Besides, I discovered a new phenomenon called “subconscious plagiarism”. You can read more about it in this article: https://unplag.com/blog/subconscious-plagiarism/

  5. Alex

    Cool metaphor of a slippery pavement! Plagiarism is kind of a grey area and it is frequently hard to explicitly state if something is already plagiarised or is still an imitation (this is the case with music for example!).

    As for the beneficial aspect of plagiarism (or should I call it “copying”, because “plagiarism” implies an evil deed) it is nice if someone uses fragments of your own words to pass it on, but it should be properly cited.

    I’d say spotting plagiarism is quite a challenge, because the methods used to spot it should be different depending on the plagiarism itself. If you search for a plagiarized essay you use a different tool, like the ones you mentioned above, when you search for a plagiarized picture you use something else, and when for example a blog post was allegedly plagiarized you should use a different tool (for example I as a blog owner use <a href=”https://copyact.com/> this automatic protection to notify me of every such incident).

    There are also various things you can do after you discover plagiarism, although contacting the plagiarist is the most obvious thing. There is a DMCA takedown notice, you can send an invoice without discussing the issue, and you can start a legal action as the last resort.

    Bottom line is, plagiarism always was and still will be present, but as the phenomenon evolves, people also develop new ways to deal with it.

    • C.K. MacLeod

      Great points, Alex!

      You’re right: it’s possible to copy more than text.
      You alluded to another topic: fair use, or fair dealing, as it’s called in Canada. Sometimes it’s okay to use a quote in your writing, provided you source that quote. But how long a quote can you use? There are rules about what is considered fair.

      Also, rules for text are different from rules for music lyrics, for example. You’ll need to consult your country’s copyright laws for guidance. Slippery pavement indeed!

  6. Ernie Zelinski

    Reminds me of this quotation from a somewhat famous author:

    “Fine words! I wonder where you stole them.”
    — Jonathan Swift

    • Carla Douglas

      Hi Ernie,

      Ha! Jonathan Swift’s name comes up in Posner’s Little Book of Plagiarism. Guess he knew something about it!

      Best,

      Carla

  7. Olga Godim

    Fascinating article. I can’t talk about academic writing, but in fiction, it’s sometimes a hard line to distinguish between plagiarism of plots and ideas on one side and creative inspiration on another. Fiction writers ARE thieves. We all steal ideas and plots from each other, starting from Homer and onward. There is a finite number of plot types, and they all have been used multiple types already, and keep getting reused. The originality comes from the details, the unique twists of the same story in a new milieu, the different characters reacting in a new way to the same circumstances.

    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      Olga,

      You’re quite right. There are universal plot types (in his book Story, Robert McKee doesn’t an excellent job of describing them), and most writers stay within the boundaries or these plot types because most readers expect them to.

      In his book Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon encourages artists to become inspired by the work of others, as we’re all inclined to do. Is this plagiarism? How close to the line can you go? I suppose this is what makes the whole notion of plagiarism so slippery!

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  8. JJ Toner

    I recall an expert (writing guru) on Absolute Write Water Cooler told us that it was a good idea to take the plot of an existing novel, change the setting, the characters etc., and develop a new novel that way. There was no suggestion that this would be considered unethical or illegal – or plagiaristic. JJ

    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      You can do that with a work that’s in the public domain (Bridget Jone’s Diary, which is based on Pride and Prejudice, is an example), but I wouldn’t risk it with a copyrighted work…

      But I see what the writing expert was getting at. You can learn a lot by reverse engineering a plot.

  9. Danny Murphy

    Excellent article! Informative and well-written. I don’t imagine it will be long before it, or portions of it, start showing up elsewhere under plagiarists’ bylines. Here’s a link to an interesting tale of plagiarism.
    How I became a ghostwriter for a celebrity preacher and didn’t even know it.
    https://business-humor.com/more-pulpit-plagiarism/

    • Carla Douglas

      Hey, Danny,

      Thanks for your comments—glad you enjoyed our post.

      I love your story of being plagiarized! It seems so unlikely that plagiarism would be an issue at church, but apparently it’s quite common. I came across a few stories about plagiarism in the pulpit while I was researching this post. They prove the point, I guess, that the demand for content frequently trumps ethics.

      Glad you can have a lighthearted attitude about this issue!

      Best,

      Carla

  10. Alan Drabke

    A distinction needs to be made for works that employ the literary tool of ‘transformation’. Dozens of movies have been made about Santa Claus and Christmas with no basis for the separate authors to sue one another for plagiarism. Because each author ‘transforms’ or bends the details of the story to his or her literary tastes.
    Often times a screenplay written by a novelist will undergo one or more rewrites by a full time Hollywood screen writer. This is a perfect situation to employ plagiarism software. With plagiarism checking software we can measure the amount of change (in units of percent) brought about on the original work by the re-writer.

    • Carla Douglas

      Hi Alan,

      Thanks for your input. Right—and your example shows how adapting a story or theme to create something new is fine, most of the time. There is also the issue of rights, which most filmmakers will take the trouble to acquire before screening a new work that’s based on another one. Posner discusses this at length in his book, too.

      The plagiarism software is remarkable, isn’t it? I understand that when student work is processed in Turnitin the resulting report will cite the percentage of content that’s not original. Does make you wonder why students will try to put one over on their teachers. :)

      Best,

      Carla

    • Carla Douglas

      Hi Judith,

      Thanks for your kind words. And you’re so right: it’s easy to cite properly and to ask permission. It can be hard to gauge where people are deliberately stealing or simply taking shortcuts that they know are breaking the rules.

      I hadn’t seen that article about 50 Shades—thanks for the link. It seems the line is becoming more blurred regarding fair use, and it’s also interesting that Stephenie Meyer shows so little interest in the apparent violation of copyright.

      Fan fiction is certainly having an impact on the publishing world, isn’t it? And when you think about the influence of sites like Wattpad, where so much “social writing” takes place, it looks like authors may have more trouble claiming their words as their own.

      Thanks again for your comments,

      Carla

  11. Michael N. Marcus

    My work has been plagiarized more than 100 times (I stopped counting).

    The Internet makes it easy to plagiarize and easy to detect plagiarism. I am amazed that thieves are stupid enough to exhibit stolen intellectual property where it’s so easy to find.

    The FBI says: “Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to FIVE YEARS IN FEDERAL PRISON and a $250,000 fine.”

    When I reported copyright violation, the FBI agent told me to hire a lawyer and file a civil suit.

    https://www.bookmakingblog.com/2014/12/plagiarize-dont-shade-your-eyes-but.html

    • Carla Douglas

      Hi Marcus,

      I’ve also wondered why anyone would be so foolish that they’d openly steal content and pass it off as their own when this practice is so easily detected. That’s a point Posner makes in his book, too—that digital technology makes it easier to steal but also easier to identify theft, so what’s the point?

      I guess for some it’s worth the risk if they stand to make some money. I remember in the early days of self-publishing on Amazon it was found that some people were copying entire novels from gutenberg.org and publishing them under their own names—complete with hideous covers.

      Unfortunately, the unethical are all around us, and we’d best be vigilant. In the meantime, Helen Sedwick’s post here on Feb 27 provides solid advice about how to proceed if we’re victims of content theft.

      Thanks again for your views on this,

      Carla

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