Plagiarism and how to avoid it

July 12th, 2007

Writing this is like walking through a minefield. In talking about plagiarism and quoting other people, I too run the risk of plagiarism.

Students can screw up their whole academic career if found guilty of plagiarism, but the dangers for online content are real.

The simplest way to avoid plagiarism is: let your reader know you’ve used other people’s words!

Always credit

  • Quotations
  • Facts that aren’t common knowledge
  • Ideas
  • Opinions

Strictly speaking, it’s also plagiarism if you don’t credit paraphrased and summarized text, but there’s an obvious paradox: for most of us, all we say and all we write is a result of things said to us and read by us. On that basis, all writing is paraphrase and summary. So does this mean you can copy text, correct grammar and spelling, and call it your own? Nope, that’s plagiarism.

Re-writing content to avoid plagiarism means changing both text and structure.

In Britain, tabloid newspapers employ “re-write subs” to take raw content and produce stories which match house style, readership, and the space available. The late lamented tabloid editor Mike Gabbert (who I worked under in the 1980s) used to say that, compared to broadsheets which had space to print everything, tabloid content was the best-written. Incidentally, he said this meant the broadsheet Telegraph had room to print more titillating and grisly court case details than the tabloid Sun or Mirror. And did.

Most re-write content retains the author’s by-line. All that’s left for the sub-editor to do is dodge reporter complaints their story has been “ruined”. Subs call this ruination “improvement”.

Much plagiarism “creeps” in during research, so I offer three ways to avoid becoming a “dirty copycat”. (Incidentally, you’ll find this ALL OVER the internet and I learned it before the web existed so it’s common knowledge.)

When copying a source:

  • Put text in quote marks to make it clear it’s not YOUR words
  • Record details of the content’s origin: URL, book title, etc.
  • If you have an original thought about the text, make a note of it. Otherwise, credit the author.

Plagiarism aside, citing other people’s observations benefits your content by turning opinion into argument.

If you’re concerned that your work may itself have been plagiarised  you can check it at copyscape.com



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