Part of the joy of being a writer is being able to come up with something original, new and fresh. After all, it is this creativity and uniqueness that keeps content interesting enough for people to pick up or click on and which is the backbone of developing a loyal readership.
I am strongly implying here that true writing involves much more than putting words to paper. Anyone with basic grammar skills and vocabulary can do that. Being a real wordsmith means that each time you pick up a pencil or sit down at your keyboard, what flows out comes from your own mind and heart. Sure, you can grab data if you need to–that’s the heart of research writing–but the concepts in the work and the way you express them aren’t anyone else’s. If the ideas, words and sentence structure you put onto a page or into an electronic file are largely someone else’s and you don’t give them proper credit, you aren’t writing. You’re stealing. More specifically, you’re plagiarizing.
According to United States copyright laws, plagiarism at the most basic level means you are stealing intellectual property, passing it off as your own. People usually think this involves only copying directly or almost word for word, but this is only half the definition. Ideas count as intellectual property, so even if you are putting something into your own words, if you don’t cite your source, you are plagiarizing.
Importantly, if you are stating common facts, such as the fact people have 10 fingers, you don’t need to cite a source, and you aren’t plagiarizing. When facts come from specific research, though, giving credit is necessary.
It’s not that bad to do, right?
Um, wrong. When you put your byline to what someone else has done, you are taking the credit for their work, robbing him of the chance for proper recognition. In some cases, taking that credit also prevents him from getting the monetary compensation he deserves. You also can look at if from your own personal standpoint: If people discover you’ve plagiarized, you lose credibility as an author. Lowered or no credibility translates to people not hiring you or accepting your manuscript submissions. That means no income. No income equals the inability to do basic stuff like buy groceries and pay your rent.
Then of course there’s the legal stuff. If the original writer figures out that you’ve stolen his intellectual property, they can sue you for copyright violation. You might have to go to court and pay significant fines if this happens.
Preventing the Problem
Two little keys will help you avoid plagiarism. The first is to learn these beautiful words: “According to…” You also should know phrases like, “As reported by,” “[Name of author] stated that,” “In their [year] work, [title], [original authors] claimed that” and “A [year] study by [authors] found that…” Use these phrases whenever you’re summarizing concepts and ideas, such as entire paragraphs or entire articles, books and websites. Secondly, if you want to point out very specific parts of a work and feel the original authors said it best, the way to avoid plagiarizing is simply to use quotation marks around whatever they wrote.
A great online resource about plagiarism is plagiarism.org. This site gives an in-depth, layman’s-style definition of plagiarism and contains useful tools, questions and even a plagiarism checker option (account and service payment required). Another great site is from the University of Indiana Writing Tutorial Services. This site provides excellent examples of what is and is not acceptable when relying on someone else’s work to create new content.