If you’re writing an academic paper, you can use whatever you find on the Internet, right?
If you’re composing a blog entry, you can just copy and paste from other people’s work, right?
If you’re writing an article for an online publication, you can take another article and just rearrange the words and call it yours, right?
The answers to those questions would be wrong, wrong again, and seriously, no.
Plagiarism is a serious charge that no one wants to be on the receiving end with a “guilty as charged” conclusion. But, sometimes, even the best-intentioned writer can be tripped up in the brave new world that is the modern Information Age. Terms like “fair use,” “public domain,” and “common knowledge” can be complicated and confusing, making it even more difficult to figure out what plagiarism is and isn’t.
So, what exactly is plagiarism? Dictionary.com defines “plagiarism” as: “The unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work, as by not crediting the author.” Essentially, you are laying claim to some words and ideas that are not your own. Hence, that is why the aforementioned definition comes with an author’s name (Dictionary.com) and quote marks.
These words and ideas are known as intellectual property. However, intellectual property isn’t limited to the written word. The World Intellectual Property Organization defines intellectual property as any creations of the mind including, “inventions, literary and artistic works, and symbols, names, images, and designs used in commerce.” While some may not place value on something that seems difficult to quantify (case in point, someone might pay $4 for 400 words while another person may place a higher value and pay a writer $40 for 400 words, but I digress….).
An easy way to avoid plagiarism – besides never, ever copying and pasting anything – is to cite your sources. While the exact method of citing varies, depending on the style of writing you’re doing – for instance, academic versus non-academic writing – the gist is that you need to let readers know where you got your information. List the author’s name and the name of the work you are referencing, and attribute the website/webpage URL, if applicable. If you are quoting a person or a work, be sure to put that quote in quotation marks and let the reader know where the quote is coming from or who is giving it.
There are some instances where an author can legally borrow from someone else’s original work. Fair use is one of those instances. While fair use laws are still hotly debated in US courts, fair use is generally acceptable in cases of either parody or in criticism and commentary. Stanford University Libraries Copyright & Fair Use webpage discusses examples. For instance, journalists may use a few quotes from a book or a song when reviewing that particular book or song. Teachers may use excerpts from news articles as part of a lesson. Medical journals may be quoted in news reports about a related medical condition.
Another instance of being able to borrow is from works in the public domain. If something is in the public domain, it means the copyright has expired. However, even if a work is in the public domain, it’s still a good idea to attribute your source.
Finally, there’s a misconception that facts cannot be plagiarized. Actually, some facts can while others cannot. Facts that are considered common knowledge are not protected by copyright laws and cannot be plagiarized. For example, since everyone knows the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, that piece of information is common knowledge. You are free to include common knowledge in your work without citing a source or worrying about plagiarism. However, facts that have been determined through unique research are considered to be original, and as such can be copyrighted and must be properly cited.
Unfortunately, even if you’ve done your best to cite your sources and come up with original material, accidental plagiarism can and frequently does occur. How do you avoid it? There are many free websites that check documents for plagiarism. The following list is by no means comprehensive, but these are a good place to start:
Before turning in or posting any written work, be sure to run it through a plagiarism checker. The short amount of time it takes is well worth the peace of mind of knowing you’re turning in an original piece of work. For writers like myself and the others who work with me, writing projects are our livelihood and it’s one that we don’t want to compromise. It’s just not worth it and it’s just plain unethical.