Copy Cats Need Not Apply

Standard

Each semester I would inevitably have a teacher who would espouse to the class how they always had one person who plagiarized. One person who thought that they could get away with copying their paper and pass it off as their own. There was an underlying threat involved–the teacher could and would find all plagiarists in their class, so don’t even try. The reality was something different. Most teachers are far too overwhelmed by the amount of work that they have to actually identify any plagiarism. Most cases of plagiarism in the academic setting will go under the radar. Unless the plagiarism is completely evident (as in, the writing level is far exceeding that which the student has previously written), or the teacher has somehow already read what the student is putting forward as their own, the plagiarism will go unnoticed (unless the teacher is using a service like Turnitin.com, which is another blog post entirely).

That doesn’t mean that I’m endorsing plagiarism. I’m just saying that it is incredibly easy to do. There are plenty of instances of professors and journalist plagiarizing work. Most of the time it’s for one of two reasons–they are too overwhelmed with other projects in order to take the time to make their own original content, or they just don’t want to make their own original content. Any way you cut it, those who plagiarize either believe whole heartedly that they will not get caught or hope beyond hope that they will not get caught.

Being writers on the internet, and being self-published authors, Zach and I have to be especially aware of plagiarism. Not only do we have to be diligent ourselves to not take credit for what is not our, but we also need to make sure that nothing that is ours has been appropriated by someone else. The internet, with all of its glorious achievements, has also made plagiarism incredibly easy to do–and incredibly easy to spot.

Here are a few cautionary tales of plagiarism.

1. If you get caught, don’t be a jerk about it

Plagiarism Today, a great site about all things copyright and content ownership, has a great post about a lurid tale of plagiarism in the University setting. The story is a flip on the usual, as a professor instead of a student is the one who was accused of plagiarism. His come-back? Attempt to completely dismantle the life of the guy who found him out. The story is worth a read and definitely gives a good moral: if you get caught for plagiarism, go quietly into the night.

2. There are a lot of forms of plagiarism

One thing that I learned in my time interning at a writing center is that plagiarism comes in a lot of different forms. Ed Tech Digest does a nice little breakdown on the different forms of plagiarism in what is called, “The Plagiarism Spectrum.” I would recommend anyone who is questioning whether or not what they are doing is plagiarism to check out this post. Not only does it describe the different forms of plagiarism, but it breaks them down into easily identifiable categories. According to the article, “The Plagiarism Spectrum was developed specifically to help students better grasp what plagiarism looks like in practice.” Personally, I think that it can be used by anyone to great affect.

3. Anyone can plagiarize, and anyone can get caught

Our Bad Media, an anonymous group of two bloggers/twitter users (@blippoblappo & @crushingbort) put up a post outlining numerous episodes of plagiarism by author and CNN host Fareed Zakaria. While the whole incident has not gotten nearly the traction that it should, there are some great dissections of the whole mess. One in particular that I think is well worth reading is a post by Steve Buttry, where he gives a great journalist perspective on why what Zakaria did is plagiarism in every sense of the word.

One more place plagiarism is rampant is in the music industry. And as this Westword article points out, it’s usually identified pretty quickly.

***

I am a fan of history and absorber of all things news. I am a writer of books and blogs, and an enjoyer of all things pop culture. There is more about my that I can not currently think of. I will answer any question via email bearded bards at gmail.com, or in the comments below. If your question is, “Can I get your book for free?” My answer is yes, just send me an email. If you would rather pay for the book on Amazon, the link is below.

Tim and the Breakup of Impending Doom.

14 thoughts on “Copy Cats Need Not Apply

  1. I had a teacher that wanted us to use some online plagiarism checker. I can’t remember what it was called, but it made a big deal about how it scoured the web and that nothing could get by them. I put in something that I had published online, and it came back as an original work. No big deal, what I did was pretty obscure. But I kept pushing it until I ran the preamble to the US Constitution, and it came clean.
    And another good way to cheat it to take any existing paper, and run it through translation software, then go from that language to another, one more step, and back to the original language. By the time you fix all the broken translations, you have a paper that looks original.

    • Yeah, those sites like Turnitin.com are often not able to grab instances of plagiarism. I think the best way that teachers can avoid plagiarism is to let students know exactly what it is and why it can hurt the original authors. Students should also be able to learn that plagiarism can not only affect them in their current courses, but also later in life. Look at Biden and the senator from Wyoming who recently had to withdrawal his election bid–plagiarism can come back to bite you even years later.

  2. Yes, I was reading a very interesting blog post the other day and wanted to know more, so went to Google and there the entire thing was on a New Scientist page….no credit was give either.

    • It’s become a pretty common practice for news sites to take content without back linking or giving credit. I listen to the podcast Hello Internet with CGP Grey, and he was talking about how news sites like to take his Youtube videos and put them on their site without giving credit. On top of this, they also like to flat out steal the videos, not just imbed, so the Youtubers don’t get any credits for the views that happen on the news sites. It’s a pretty sketchy practice and I really think some of it comes out of the 24 hour news cycle. There just aren’t enough people in the newsrooms anymore to create the kind of content they need to put up 24/7, and so, unfortunately, some of the staffers resort to taking content that isn’t theirs. And their editors either don’t care, or are under the same kind of pressure to get content up and don’t make sure that the content is original.

  3. An intriguing post – and nailing one of the sadder issues that affects published authors. It’s not limited to the web. I’ve been writing professionally in New Zealand for over 30 years, mostly non-fiction, and find that my material is plagiarised fairly often, and by people who should know better. I’ve found my published interpretation and exact words copied on, for instance, a New Zealand government official encyclopaedia site, without credit or requested permission. Or my interpretations and even wording are taken by academics who apparently feel that because I’ve intruded into their territory, they have a right to help themselves to my intellectual property without asking. But this, at least, is processed through their own writing mechanisms – wrapped in enough of their own material to give the illusion that they thought of it.

    Charitably, it is – just – possible that some of this is inadvertent, that they’ve read my stuff as part of their research, made notes, and forgotten that it isn’t their own. But the frequency and nature of the thefts, coupled with the attacks the same people make on my repute in their field, is such that I doubt it. I have to admire the cheek and hypocrisy of it.

    However, the wholesale copy-and-paste made possible by the web is a different matter. And, as you say, it is blatant and easily detectable. Of course the people doing it are only cheating themselves; it’s the lazy way. Students won’t learn anything by doing it – and qualified professionals who do it are merely revealing themselves to be thieves.

    • You made me think of another point, especially for authors who get their work plagiarized. Not only is it complete and total theft of work, but it is also potential theft of profits. Sure, a college freshman who plagiarizes isn’t going to be taking money out of your pocket, but when someone like Zakaria starts taking content from others without attribution, or like in your situation, you lose out of the potential for people to see that the original content was yours, and thereby lose the chance that you may have had a potential reader buying your books. I heard of examples on Hello Internet (same podcast I was talking about with another commenter) where Youtuber actually bill news sites that don’t properly attribute when they take said Youtuber’s videos. They bill for the loss of ad sales that they could have had from the views that the news site stole from them. I don’t know if there is some way to bill for potential lost readers from missed attribution, but I do think that there could be a case for those who do plagiarize to face civil legal challenges for lost revenue (at least here in the States).

      • Yes, it’s absolutely a loss to the original author. And their publisher. In the trad world I’ve been working through, all standard publishing contracts include a clause requiring either party to notify the other if they become aware of infringement of the work, so I’ve always made sure my publishers are alerted when I spot an issue. But major action is dependent on scale. Lawyers cost, and little gets done until the financial hit on returns is judged enough to warrant paying for the legal letters and potential subsequent action. Costs are typically split between author and publisher in the hope that a settlement will at least cover them, later. It’s viable for a book with sales in the hundreds of thousands, but not for the usual run-of-the-mill title which (alas!) seldom shifts more than a few thousand even into the US market. I guess it’s little different for indie publishing, or those who put their work up and hope to receive advertising revenues – same calculation, but they have to take action on their own, wholly out of their own pocket.

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