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 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.


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

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: Amazon links contain my affiliate code.

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