Category Archives: Editing

The Evil P Word: Plagiarism

All right, folks. I hate to say that today’s topic is necessary, but it is. Even for an audience of writers, editors, and adults in general who should know better. It’s time for the plagiarism talk.

Think back to your school days, perhaps a high school or college English class. When your teacher assigned a paper, she or he probably included a warning against plagiarism in the instructions. Your college course syllabi likely had anti-plagiarism policies in them as well. By then, you already learned the difference between quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing. You knew how to cite properly for the subject at hand.

There might have been instances when you didn’t have interest in the subject matter, time to research and write the paper, or the energy to write. In those moments, plagiarism could become extremely tempting. That other writer says what I need to a whole lot better than I can. What harm can it do to copy a sentence here, a phrase there? My instructor probably won’t notice, what with having to read through a stack of papers from the entire class.

Chances are, your instructor will notice. And that leads to something worse than anger: disappointment. Disappointment not just because you stole from someone else, but because saying something in your own words is so important. Communication shows your understanding of a topic. But even more importantly is your voice, your thoughts, your individuality.

I know what you’re thinking: “That was school. I never plagiarized. What does this have to do with me?”

A lot. I understand the reasons students sometimes plagiarize (or even pay for a paper written by someone else), though I don’t condone them. But professional writers? You don’t have an excuse. The teacher/student analogy applies here. For example, when a freelance writer submits a piece commissioned by their editor, the editor does check for plagiarism. We see it sometimes—and sometimes is too often when it’s submitted by a professional. Being a professional writer means you should know how to craft your own sentences. That’s your job. How hard can it be for you to synthesize information you’ve read and summarize it in your own words? Self-plagiarism is also a no-no. The article may be your own words, but if it already got published elsewhere, we can’t use it.

Plagiarism tells us that you’re lazy, that you don’t really care about working for us. It will come back to bite you with more than just a slap on the wrist. We cannot let plagiarized material slip, because if it gets published—and caught—the publisher’s reputation goes down the drain. Never mind a legal fine—a failed company means the loss of our jobs. Yes, it could become that serious. As for the plagiarizing writer, we might be lenient the first time. We might send the piece back, showing where you’ve plagiarized, and tell you to write it again. We probably won’t hire you for future assignments. Do you really want to lose a client? What if that client happens to know someone at another publisher you submit work to? They could spread the word not to hire you. If you want to continue your writing career, I recommend not getting blacklisted.

Let’s talk about detecting plagiarism. Do you know how easy it is to spot? Pretty darn easy. Each writer has a unique voice, an individual style of writing. Each piece written has a certain ring to it, a certain tone. When reading the piece as a whole, it’s not that difficult to pick up on a phrase that just doesn’t sound like the rest of the work, even when you’re not actively looking for plagiarism. It’s especially not that hard for someone who reads and writes for a living.

There’s some pretty nifty software out there that can detect plagiarism and point out its original source. Universities use this kind of software, as do publishers. There’s also Google. I often google a phrase to learn more about the subject and thus be better informed when editing the piece. In doing so, I’ve stumbled upon plagiarism. Here’s an example from this past week at the office: I was reading two paragraphs about the Indian independence movement. The sentences were just plain dull—not even a mention of Gandhi! In order to spice up the writing, I did some research via Google. (The piece was short enough and our deadline tight enough that I decided not to bother sending the article back to the writer.) Lo and behold, the sentences were ripped word-for-word from Wikipedia. Wikipedia! Yes, even editors use Wikipedia—as a quick jumping-off point for fact-checking, not for trusting its accuracy. The internet is a wonderful place, with plenty of credible sources of information. Please use those instead.

I want to trust you. Initially, I do, but plagiarism ruins that trust. If you really think the other writer can say it better, quote and cite the source! Don’t use the evil P word. Say NO to Plagiarism! (In the United States, anyway. Not a topic I will get into here.)

*Update: My company is taking legal action against another for plagiarizing from us. I found the material plagiarized. See how easy and dangerous both plagiarizing and catching plagiarism are?