The word plagiarism should invoke terror into the heart of everyone who ever wrote a college or university paper.
But even if you have never written an academic paper in your life, and you think that all your work is entirely your own, I recommend you consider the possibility that you might very well be falling into the plagiarism trap unless you take a closer look. And make no mistake, plagiarism comes at a very steep price―both in terms of your reputation as a writer and financially if someone sues you.
I spent twenty-six years of my career teaching (and writing and researching) as a university professor. My department was communication studies, and I taught corporate communications ethics and strategy to both undergraduate students and our Masters-level students. Of course, after a career of writing and teaching about ethics, the concept of plagiarism is even more important to me.
When I was a university professor, I had a long section on every course syllabus warning students of the perils of even the slightest whiff of plagiarism. And if you think professors (and readers) will never find out, you are so wrong.
Once, while reading a student assignment (a feature story), I noticed that the story didn’t sound quite the same after the lead paragraph. I copied and pasted a section of the paper into a search engine, and lo and behold. The piece appeared on not one but numerous sites. Then I looked at parts of the story further on. Sure enough, copied and pasted into the story by a lazy, dishonest student. But it’s not just a student problem.
In recent years, finding evidence of plagiarism in the work of public figures has become something of a cottage industry. Remember when Melania Trump’s speechwriter plagiarized a speech from Michele Obama in 2016?
In her speech, she said the following: “From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect.” Eight years earlier, Michele Obama made a speech during which she said the following: “Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them.” There is no argument here for this being anything but a case of plagiarism (later, the speechwriter admitted she had consulted Obama’s speech because Trump had admired it.)
And there have been many more high-profile cases through the years. Even J.R.R Tolkien and J.K. Rowling have been named in plagiarism cases for similarities to others’ work. No one is immune.
So, no matter what you write, you could be plagiarizing―sometimes even inadvertently. However, motive doesn’t matter: you won’t like the ending if you plagiarize.
There are, however, a few steps you can take to avoid this plague.
First, be sure you understand exactly what the term “plagiarism” means. Here’s a dictionary definition to begin:
“…closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author…”
(from dictionary.com lest you think I’m plagiarizing!)
Here’s how I define plagiarism:
…using someone else’s work (ideas or words) and using them as if they were your own…
Once you understand this, you can start to analyze your own work and determine how much of the ideas you’ve accumulated throughout your research are your own and how much are others and should be credited.
Next, be sure to keep a record of every source you consult. This means keeping a record of every article you read concerning your writing, every website and the information you glean from each one. You can then go back to check that you have credited outside sources accurately.
The third step you can take is to focus on your own unique ideas. Of course, many of our thoughts and ideas result from all we’ve been exposed to throughout our lives. This is all part of being a living, breathing human being. You must begin to figure out what aspects of your ideas and thoughts are your own, though, and which of them is essentially nothing more than a paraphrase of someone else’s ideas. You have your own ideas. Focus on that.
Next, don’t mistake paraphrasing (putting someone else’s unique idea, not your own words) for avoiding plagiarism. Even paraphrasing an idea that belongs to someone else can be considered plagiarism. And if you want to quote someone else, by all means, do it. Just make sure you give the source credit. (And be sure to quote them accurately.)
For example, I used quotes at the beginning of each chapter in my most recent book, and each quote is credited to the source.
Finally, be careful of self-plagiarism because it’s a real thing. Dr. Ben Mudrak, writing in American Journal Experts Scholar, defines self-plagiarism this way:
“…any attempt to take any of your own previously published text, papers, or research results and make it appear brand new…”
In other words, if you’re sending a book manuscript to a publisher, or an article to a magazine, the editor has a right to expect that the work is new, never before published. It might be in the same topic area that you’ve published before, but the approach should be fresh, the ideas new.
Just be sure that nothing turns up if someone took a piece of your work and popped it into a search engine.