Plagiarism? Come on, You’re Better Than That.

Dan O'SullivanThe Writing Life, Writing TipsLeave a Comment

What do Joe Biden, Melania Trump, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and countless disgraced journalists have in common? They’ve all been accused of plagiarism.

With the Internet at our disposal, stealing someone else’s words has never been easier. If you don’t have any moral qualms about doing that, I can’t help you.

But plenty of people plagiarize because they’re lazy and/or honestly don’t understand what constitutes plagiarism. And the penalties can be steep: As American Express OPEN columnist Erika Napoletano explains, the risks include being sued by the content creator and having your website “shut down if you don’t comply” with requests to remove the content.

If you want to stay out of trouble, remember what not to do.

You Can’t Do This

Recently, I was copyediting a blog post for a client. He sent me a draft that seemed pretty polished. I asked if he wrote it, and he said he had taken the bulk of it from an article he found on Bloomberg.com.

Now, this guy isn’t a dummy. But he thought he could grab a few paragraphs from the original article, add a new introduction and closing, and call it his own. After all, he’d given his own take on the topic, right?

Wrong. In a case like this, you could include a quote or two from the original article along with attribution (e.g. acknowledging the author and linking to the original article). Or, you could paraphrase small excerpts from the article while also including attribution. You can’t do either, however, without attribution.

You Can’t Do This Either

Another client posted a complete article from another website on her blog. It was with full attribution, so she thought this was okay. It’s not.

What are you supposed to do in a situation like this? You could start by asking the author/publisher for permission to reuse the article in full. If that doesn’t work out, you have two options:

  1. Copy the headline and first paragraph, and then add a “Read More” link to the source article.
  2. Put your own brief spin on the article, explaining why you thought your readers would be interested in it. Then link to the source article.

Make Sure You’re Not Plagiarized

Here’s a nice tool to bookmark: the Copyscape plagiarism checker. Simply enter your website’s URL, and you’ll see a list of any websites that have “borrowed” your copy.

After entering www.thehiredpens.com last year, I found that a young copywriter from the West Coast had stolen large chunks of copy from our site. (Worse yet, the copy she apparently did write was riddled with typos — not a strong point if you’re a copywriter.) We hired some thugs to knock on her door sent her a polite email asking that she remove our copy, and she eventually complied.

Do yourself a favor: Don’t put yourself in the same position as that young copywriter. Let’s keep it clean, folks!

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