Understanding and Avoiding Plagiarism

To anyone in the business of creating content, plagiarism should be a bright red line: Do Not Cross! Yet the question of what plagiarism is, and how to avoid it, is surprisingly complicated. A good starting point is the dictionary. Merriam-Webster defines plagiarize as “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own.”

This definition emphasizes a key point: officially, plagiarism is an intentional act—akin to stealing and thus unethical (if not always illegal). What muddies the water is that many apparent instances of plagiarism are unintentional—someone copies another person’s ideas or words not from malice or laziness but because they don’t understand how to properly paraphrase or cite their sources. 

From a practical standpoint, the question of intent is relatively unimportant: if you do not credit your sources, you expose yourself to all manner of liability, ignominy, and other negative consequences. It is therefore imperative for professional content creators to understand exactly what plagiarism is. (I refer to content creators rather than writers, since one can plagiarize aural and visual content—including pictures, video, and audio recordings—as well as text.) Let’s debunk some common misconceptions.

MISCONCEPTION 1: It isn’t plagiarism if you change the words.

This is actually two errors. First, avoiding plagiarism requires more than replacing every other word with a synonym. Compare these two statements. Here is the original, from Charles Dickens’s 1850 novel, David Copperfield:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

Now read this “paraphrase”:

If I end up as the protagonist of my personal existence, or if this role is taken by another person, this book will tell.

In addition to being clunky, this is still plagiarism! Remember, plagiarism refers to ideas as well as words, and the specific way that an author arranges words on a page—the syntax and structure of a phrase, sentence, or paragraph—is a crucial part of how authors express their ideas. To truly put a statement into “your own words,” you must put different words in a different structure.

What about the second error? Even if you appropriately paraphrase someone else’s idea, you must still give that person credit. A successful paraphrase may even incorporate a quotation, as long as it clearly identifies the source:

David Copperfield, the protagonist of Charles Dickens’s 1850 novel, introduces himself to readers by wondering if he or another person shall be “the hero of my own life.”

MISCONCEPTION 2: You can’t plagiarize from the public domain.

As noted, the novel David Copperfield was published in 1850. It is in the public domain, which means it is not protected by copyright and anyone can reproduce it, in any manner, without legal liability. (How to determine what is in the public domain could be the subject of another post, but generally, anything published prior to 1923 is free to use.) Plagiarism and copyright are two distinct concepts, however. Just because the law permits you to freely reproduce content, ethics and integrity—not to mention, if you are being paid for your work, a contractual obligation—require you to credit the source of that content. Otherwise, you are guilty of plagiarism.

MISCONCEPTION 3: You can reproduce any content as long as you credit the source.

This is essentially the reverse of the previous error. In fact, if content is protected by copyright, you are not free to reproduce it. That is the purpose of copyright: to limit the right to copy a work. To reproduce protected content, you must get the permission of the copyright holder—a time-consuming process that typically involves payment. And of course, if you do get permission, you must credit the creator.

Some people assume the principle of fair use permits them to reproduce part of a copyright work for a limited range of (usually noncommercial) purposes: for example, printing an excerpt from a speech or a photograph of a march in a history textbook. In fact, fair use is a set of guidelines for judges to apply on a case-by-case basis; as the U.S. Copyright Office emphasizes, “the outcome of any given case depends on a fact-specific inquiry.” In other words, there is no clear-cut statute that content creators can rely on. (Brief quotations for the purpose of commentary or criticism are perhaps the safest application of fair use—it is the reason critics may include quotes from the latest releases in their reviews.) If you reproduce copyright content without authorization, regardless of whether you credit the source, you may be sued, and you will have to convince a judge that your usage is genuinely “fair.”

MISCONCEPTION 4: As long as I’m copying common knowledge, it’s not plagiarism.

This is less a misconception than an oversimplification. It is true that sources of common, or general, knowledge do not have to be cited . . . but what knowledge counts as common? Unfortunately, different sources have different answers! According to the Purdue Online Writing Lab, “you can regard something as common knowledge if you find the same information undocumented in at least five credible sources.” On the other hand, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) gives vaguer advice: “Broadly speaking, common knowledge refers to information that the average, educated reader would accept as reliable without having to look it up.” 

Keep in mind that different audiences have different storehouses of common knowledge. If you are writing an academic paper for chemists, for example, the “average, educated reader” will accept many more statements as commonly known than if you are explaining a simple experiment to middle schoolers. Remember too to paraphrase the common knowledge and—as always—cite your source!

Ultimately, the advice on this topic boils down to these key points: When in doubt, use your own words and cite your source. Better for your audience to absorb an unnecessary citation than to think a missing citation is evidence of plagiarism.

* * * * *

As content creators, we have a variety of reasons for incorporating into our work other people’s words and ideas. Among these reasons is the desire to honor and respect those whose own work has made possible and informed ours. Seen in this light, plagiarism is the ultimate sign of disrespect. Understand it, and avoid it.

Main Sources: