The consequences of plagiarism can be severe for both the plagiariser and the person whose work or ideas have been plagiarised. Just the mention of the word plagiarism is often enough to strike fear into the heart of any writer or student, or in fact in the heart of the creator of any original work.
This article looks at why plagiarism is such an important issue, some of the main types of plagiarism, and how you can actively avoid plagiarising another person’s work.
What is plagiarism?
“plagiarism: The practice of taking someone else's work or ideas and passing them off as one's own. Recorded from the early 17th century, the word comes from Latin plagiarius ‘kidnapping’.” ~ Oxford Reference
Plagiarism is seen as a form of stealing - illegal, unethical, and damaging to both plagiarist and those being plagiarised.
What sort of content does it cover?
It covers not only written content such as books, articles, and essays, but anything that is another’s original work. For example, music, graphics, video games, TV programmes and films, paintings, photography, computer software, and clothing.
Producing original written work for yourself and for others is crucial to retaining your integrity, and that of your work.
If you pass off the work of others as your own you risk losing professional or academic credibility, and permanently damaging your reputation.
The consequences of plagiarism are just as far reaching for those whose work has been used without permission.
I know someone well who had their writing stolen from their website, and word-for-word made into a book which sold on Amazon for more than a year before the original author discovered it.
The impact on the original author was not only on an emotional level; the work had now been published which made it impossible for them to publish it themselves without rewriting.
The only ‘consolation’ the true author of this work took away from their experience, was that the book received many favourable reviews. However, to see someone else receiving praise and financial compensation for something you 100% created yourself is a very unpleasant experience.
Even when content is being given away for free by the original author, as was the case with this book, plagiarism isn’t by any means a victimless act.
If, for example, university students routinely plagiarise content in order to get higher grades, the value and academic integrity of university degrees would be undermined.
And if someone gains professional credibility through passing off someone else’s work as their own, the advantages and respect they consequently receive from colleagues and the wider community are not earned, and may well be taken at the expense of others.
Types of Plagiarism
Accidental or unintentional plagiarism
The book example above was deliberate plagiarism – the plagiarist knowingly copied that work and published it without attribution or consent.
The original work was clearly marked as copyrighted but even if it had not been, they knew none of the content they published belonged to them, and they deliberately set out to gain financially from another’s work.
Accidental plagiarism on the other hand, occurs when someone unintentionally uses another’s work or words without identifying the author or original source.
However, the fact that you did not intend to deceive is no defence against accidental plagiarism, and the consequences can still be serious - your reputation may suffer regardless of whether the plagiarism was intentional or not.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to unintentionally plagiarise someone else’s work.
We have access to online resources and sources that we can simply copy and paste from when we read something that we would like to refer to in our own writing.
Or we might copy an extract from a printed book, journal, research paper etc., and forget to make a note of where those words come from.
When we return to our notes later, we think the words are ours and they are included in our final piece without credit to the original author.
Very often, accidental plagiarism is simply caused by a lack of knowledge about how to credit sources properly. And sometimes it’s caused by a writer’s lack of confidence in their ability to put their thoughts or ideas into their own words.
The example of plagiarism we discussed earlier, where a whole manuscript was taken and turned into a book sold under another’s name, was an example of complete plagiarism. Direct plagiarism is similar to complete plagiarism in that it relates to the word for word copying of someone else’s work without giving proper attribution, but direct plagiarism refers to the copying of sections of work, rather than the whole text.
Self-plagiarism is the reuse or duplication, without attribution, of work you have previously published.
It might seem strange that you can plagiarise your own work – after all, you created it – but self-plagiarism is also frowned upon and can have serious consequences.
If you’re a published author, it’s likely you will need permission from your publishers to reuse any part of your work. Check your publisher’s rules on this.
As a student, you cannot reuse content from one essay in another without citing that you have previously used it.
Freelance writers often write on similar topics for multiple clients. Your clients want original work, and they own the work you created for them, and for which they paid you. Although you wrote the words, you cannot reuse them without permission.
Mosaic plagiarism or patchwork plagiarism
Mosaic or patchwork plagiarism is taking someone’s sentences or phrases and inserting them throughout your work without using quotation marks, and without using proper citation.
It includes rewording or paraphrasing the material whilst at the same time keeping the same sentence structure of the original source.
How to avoid plagiarism
Be confident in your own writing skills and your unique perspective
As mentioned above, some instances of plagiarism occur because writers are new and not yet confident in their subject or their writing skills. They are learning their craft, and learning the subject they are writing about, and much of this learning is done by looking at the work of others who seem to express so easily exactly what they would like to say.
In those circumstances it might seem easy to copy a few perfect sentences or turns of phrase. But instead, be confident in your own ideas and your own way of expressing them. We all have something to offer, an opinion, or unique perspective or point of view. You’ll become more confident in including these in your writing the more you practise the art of writing, and the more you learn and write about your subject.
Know when to exercise caution if you employ virtual assistants, ghostwriters, or freelancers
Claiming you didn’t know the work written by your freelancer, ghostwriter, or virtual assistant was not original is not a valid defence.
Make sure the people you employ to create work for you are aware of the potentially serious consequences of plagiarism for both of you – for your careers and credibility.
And make sure they know your policy regarding crediting the work of others. Do you have a checklist you can provide for them as a reminder? If not, create a document that shows exactly how you want them to quote or cite and reference etc. in the work they create for you.
If you’re using a site such as Fiverr where you can get blog posts or articles for a very small sum in a short space of time, exercise caution and check the work before you publish it.
There are many good writers on these sites who are simply starting out as writers and earning a small income before they get established, but there may be others who are not as genuine and who will pass work on to you that is, wholly or partly, reused or copied from elsewhere – be careful. Automatic plagiarism checkers make it easy to check the written work you commission is original.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that for good quality original work you should expect to pay more.
Use consistent note-taking techniques to help avoid plagiarism
If you’re making notes in Word or any other electronic note-taking system, immediately highlight any text/quotes etc in yellow (or a different colour of your choice) so it’s obvious you didn’t write it.
Include a link to the original source, or notes about the book, other printed sources, so you can go back and reference your sources properly before you publish.
You could do the same on paper with a highlighter pen – or write the copied text in a different colour.
Know how to use citations properly, and credit all your sources
Very often, plagiarism occurs simply because of a lack of knowledge about how to credit original sources correctly, rather than the intent to deceive and pass off another’s work as your own.
Use your own words and ideas as much as you can, and make sure you know and follow your university’s, employer’s, or publisher’s guidelines for citation style. If in doubt, cite.
Use a plagiarism checker
Plagiarism checkers show you whether your text contains any duplicated content.
Anyone who creates original written content can also check to see if someone has copied parts of their work.
If you put your work through a plagiarism checker and find apparently duplicated copy, don’t panic, it doesn’t automatically mean that the content identified is plagiarised.
Use the checker as a tool to help you find anything you might have missed. Look at the parts highlighted as identical or very similar to other content – do they need citations, or quotation marks? Maybe you forgot to put them in.
If you think you’ve quoted or copied something but not credited it, do a simple internet search and see if you can find the original source.
It may be that the expression or extract highlighted is simply a commonly used expression and not something copied from another person’s work.
The consequences of plagiarism can be serious even if it is unintentional.
It can be easy to commit plagiarism whether out of forgetfulness, or a lack of knowledge about the correct way to credit your sources.
Always err on the side of caution and provide citations for words and ideas that are not your own. Refer to your university’s guidelines - or whomever you are writing for.
Adopt a careful note-taking process that will help you minimize the potential for inadvertently passing off another’s work as your own. And don’t forget it’s possible to plagiarise your own work!
Passing your work through a good plagiarism checker will help you identify any missing citations or quotation marks.
Edited by romeo