Is It Plagiarism?

Anyone who has worked as an editor has faced the problem of plagiarism.

One of the worst cases of plagiarism I have personally encountered was a British “author” who had copied whole newspaper articles nearly word for word. I was not expecting that he had engaged in plagiarism, as other editors had assured me that he was reliable and that they had already checked the work. However, some statistics and facts had to be updated, and when I went to gather the new information I instead discovered the theft. In nearly every case, the source materials he had plagiarized were either on of the first or second hits on Google, showing that the previous editors had not even bothered to factcheck his work, much less check it for plagiarism.

Not every case of plagiarism I have encountered required a Google search to suss out. Once, a Chinese “author” sent in some material for a children’s ELT series where the main character was a dinosaur called “Gogo”. However, anyone who has ever taught a children’s ELT class would know that this was the iconographic trademark of our main competitor.

Many people defend plagiarism by claiming that little or no harm is done by it. This is certainly not true. We had paid the British “author” a hefty advance to write original material for us, but he had not done the work. He had therefore defrauded us of the money we had paid him, and wasted our valuable time. Likely, the sources he plagiarized would not have sued if his plagiarism had reached print, but his plagiarism would have harmed the image and reputation or our company, and the publication would have had to have been withdrawn at great expense. In the case of the Chinese “author”, if his plagiarism had reached print, we certainly would have been subject to a huge lawsuit for copyright and trademark infringement. Further, we would have become the laughingstock of the industry.

With the invention of the Internet, plagiarism has become rampant. It has also become much easier to spot. However, some famous authors have muddled the waters by claiming that their plagiarism was not really plagiarism at all–that it was just faulty attribution, or that they harmlessly paraphrased a short passage from someone else. In some cases these explanations are valid. However, in other cases they are trying to defend shoddy research, lazy writing, or even an outright theft of someone else’s words and ideas. Since editors are supposed to be the last bulwarks against the publication of error, sloth, and deceit, it is important that they stay vigilant, and understand the issues involved.

Poynter has an excellent article helping to explain the nature of plagiarism and what to look for as an editor. Anyone interested in being a good editor owes it to him or herself to read the whole article. Poynter has even produced this helpful flowchart that you can print up and hang on the wall or your cubical (or in my case, cave).

Is it plagiarism?

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