Plagiarism 101 for Blogs and Online Publications

catching plagiarismPlagiarism is the cardinal sin of online writing and publishing. No one wants it to happen on their website because it ruins credibility, quality, and search engine rankings. It's understood to be a huge ethical problem. However, with the Internet, it's easier than ever to plagiarize while being just as difficult to catch it or to stop it. Here's what every blogger or online publication needs to know about plagiarism, and what constitutes plagiarism:

So, What Is Plagiarism?

According to Wikipedia, plagiarism is:

"the mere copying of text, but also the presentation of another's ideas as one's own, regardless of the specific words or constructs used to express that idea". Meaning, in order for text to be considered plagiarized, it needs to be a copy or close copy of the text AND lack attribution to the original author or source"

Yes, I copied and pasted that definition verbatim from the Wikipedia. But it's not plagiarism as I attributed the definition, placed the definition in quotes, and provided a hyperlink to the very web page I pulled the definition from. A mere word-for-word copy is NOT plagiarism, I repeat, it is NOT plagiarism. It only counts if it is not properly attributed and the author is trying to pass the words and/or ideas as one's own. There are many times when a word-for-word copy would be perfectly appropriate, or even preferable, such as a definition (especially a long or technical one), a direct quote, or a set of statistics.

Why are Plagiarism Detection Services Bad?

This distinction is important to remember because many plagiarism detection services can only detect blatant word-for-word copies of text and don't take those nuances into account when looking at a block of text. Services like Copyscape and Plagium would say that most of the above paragraph is plagiarism, despite the fact that I attributed the definition, quoted the definition (showing that I didn't write those words and that I am 'quoting' someone else), and provided a link to the exact web page I found the definition.

The word-for-word copy also doesn't account for another form of plagiarism: taking another's idea without attribution. I can take someone's public policy idea, change around enough words to pass these services, and then write about the idea as if I came up with it all on my own. It's also possible to pass these services by changing every third or fourth word, so with plagiarism detection services, it's important to exercise human judgement and intuition when evaluating an article. It's also important to let your writer's know that passing these services isn't enough, and ought to know the difference as well.

In our next post, we'll offer a few ways to catch plagiarism. In the meantime, you need to exercise your judgement by knowing that needs to be credited and what doesn't. Knowing this will make easier to

What Needs, and Doesn't Need, Credit or Attribution

Here, then, is a brief list from the Purdue Online Writing Lab of what needs to be credited or documented:

  • Words or ideas presented in a magazine, book, newspaper, song, TV program, movie, Web page, computer program, letter, advertisement, or any other medium
  • Information you gain through interviewing or conversing with another person, face to face, over the phone, or in writing
  • When you copy the exact words or a unique phrase
  • When you reprint any diagrams, illustrations, charts, pictures, or other visual materials
  • When you reuse or repost any electronically-available media, including images, audio, video, or other media

Things that don't need documentation or credit, also taken from the Purdue Online Writing Lab's page on plagiarism, include:

  • Writing your own lived experiences, your own observations and insights, your own thoughts, and your own conclusions about a subject
  • When you are writing up your own results obtained through lab or field experiments
  • When you use your own artwork, digital photographs, video, audio, etc.
  • When you are using "common knowledge," things like folklore, common sense observations, myths, urban legends, and historical events (but not historical documents)
  • When you are using generally-accepted facts, e.g., pollution is bad for the environment, including facts that are accepted within particular discourse communities, e.g., in the field of composition studies, "writing is a process" is a generally-accepted fact.