How Communicators Can Avoid Plagiarizing Others and Themselves

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Plagiarism happens, sometimes intentionally, other times by accident.

The unintentional incidences of plagiarism should be as worrisome to communicators as instances of intentional plagiarism.

Try this experiment: Read an article written by someone else and then try to write a summary of it. Then go back and look at the original article and your summary. Expect to be surprised at how many phrases and ideas you unintentionally borrowed, sometimes word for word, from the original.

Another experiment: Take an article you’ve written, read it over carefully and then pretend you’ve been asked by another publication to write an article on the same topic. After you’ve written the second article you again may be surprised at how similar the two are. This is an instance where you can be accused of plagiarizing yourself.

You can skip the above experiments should you be pressed for time, as most communicators are today. I’ve seen countless examples of both of the above experiments.

Another example of unintentional plagiarism occurs when students and people who are otherwise unfamiliar with the conventions of writing, cut and paste large swaths of copy from a source and use it as their own. In those cases writers genuinely are unaware of their sin.

In this cut-and-paste world, it’s up to teachers and supervisors to become familiar with the rules of plagiarism and instruct newcomers. It’s also up to editors and senior PR leaders to be plagiarism police officers. Yes, that will reduce productivity and there’s so much you have to edit in a day and, and, and…still, it's become part of the job.

Years ago, long before the internet, a submitted article reached my desk. I had a lot of issues with it and the author didn't return my phone calls, so I put it aside. A few days later the article, nearly word for word, appeared in a competitor's publication. I phoned the editor of that publication and we realized we had been duped: The article's author had purported to be an independent analyst yet upon further investigation we found companies were paying him to get their stock prices raised. Had the story been published twice it would have been plagiarism. Of course, that was just one of many issues involved in this example.

Be prepared, though, for those accused of plagiarism to make excuses. “I didn’t know I wasn’t allowed to do that…” or “I’ve been working so hard, weekends, nights…and I used just a few sentences from someone else’s work, what’s the harm?” I’ve heard variations on both during my career. The first one, if you believe the person, warrants a plagiarism seminar. The second excuse obviously is tougher. Perhaps the workload in your office is onerous. You’ll need to deal with that or suffer the consequences. Offering a heavy workload as an excuse for plagiarism, though, should be unacceptable.

Speaking of unintentional plagiarism, is the phrase “in this cut-and-paste world” that I used above my own or am I plagiarizing? I wrote it before I read it in a NY Times article linked here, but then I wonder: Had I heard it or seen it previously? A few months ago the headline at this site atop an article about influencers read: How to Build a Relationship With Influencers, Not Just a One-Night Stand. One month later another website ran a similar headline above its article about influencers. Plagiarism or a creative idea that occurred separately to two people?

After writing a rough draft of this essay I looked closer at the Times article I mentioned above. I was horrified when I saw the approach I’d taken in the essay you are reading is very similar to the one the Times used in 2015. These and others—yes, as we noted above, you can plagiarize yourself, ask Jonah Lehrer—are some of plagiarism's gray areas.

Of course, we’re talking about plagiarism at the moment because it was alleged March 6, 2017, that the White House took a portion of an ExxonMobil statement and a quote from Darren Woods, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, about oil exploration activities and used them in its own press release without attribution.

It’s hardly the first instance of plagiarism at the highest levels of society. I wouldn’t have been able to function in graduate school without the books of Stephen Ambrose, who, years later, was caught plagiarizing several times. Just as I was recovering from that shock, another eminent historian whom I admired, Doris Kearns Goodwin, also was caught.

Even in the highest levels of government, examples of plagiarism can be found fairly easily: see Crowley, Monica and a speechwriter for Trump, Melania.

In defense of ignorant plagiarists (did I really write that?), the concept of borrowing is all around us in today's digital world. Pulling a piece of art or music off the internet is ridiculously easy. And it seems above board. Why should it be different for the written word?

In the art world, creators borrow all the time. Indeed, music and art students are encouraged to imitate the styles of their favorite artists. Don't we ask of actors, writers and filmmakers, "Who were your influences?" Wasn't Romeo and Juliet adapted to create West Side Story? In jazz, students are told that stealing phrases, or licks, from the likes of Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie is not only permissible, but also recommended. And, yes, jazz teachers use the word “stealing.”

Perhaps rule number one for writers, young and old, is to read as much as possible. In addition to being enjoyable, reading great literature allows aspiring writers to "borrow" from the masters, with attribution, of course. Look at television for examples of networks appropriating large chunks of each other’s shows. Especially when ratings are at stake, nothing succeeds in TV like success, so when a series becomes popular, expect other networks to copy that idea. Sometimes it’s barely disguised: a few years ago you could watch Flip This House on A&E network and Flip That House on Discovery Channel. Of course, in writing there’s a difference between wholesale purloining, plagiarism and attributed borrowing.

The takeaways from all this might be that the best offense is a good defense (is repeating a cliché plagiarism?). In an atmosphere where the work of others is a few clicks away and communicators’ workloads seem to keep rising, reduce the temptation by making sure staffers know the definition of plagiarism and its rules (suggestions contained in the linked Times article are great places to start, as are the sites plagiarismtoday.com and plagiarism.org). Have a plagiarism policy in your company handbook and make sure the penalties are commensurate. Using a phrase I'm sure I didn't invent, go back to the basics, hold yearly plagiarism seminars that are must-attends and inculcate staff newcomers upon their joining your team. Make it impossible for a staff member to plead ignorance on plagiarism.

Follow Seth Arenstein: @skarenstein