A few months ago I was hired to provide content for a kids’ activity book that would have a focus on values, virtues, character building … and so on. I’m a parent, but that alone doesn’t make me an expert, so I did a little research—and in every single article, plagiarism was mentioned.
Why? Because information is so easy to find these days (Internet!) and all it takes is a click and drag to make that information, well, yours. If you’re a kid.
At least that’s what I thought until I started editing, lo, these many years ago.
As an editor I learned adults do it too. They copy and paste sentences or paragraphs (sometimes more! OMG) into their manuscripts and send it off to their publishers thinking no one will be the wiser. Or without thinking at all. But oh, if they only knew what I can tell just by looking. Before I even read the first word.
So here’s one of my secrets, all you nonfiction writers.* I can tell if a piece of the manuscript has been copied and pasted from another source with a different style formatting simply by “selecting” it. The highlighted passage will show up as another color underneath my selection color. It might be a line or a paragraph. It might be just one word.
And most of the time it’s perfectly innocent: material copied from the author’s blog, say, or a scripture verse copied from BibleGateway. But sometimes this additionally colored selection leads me right to Wikipedia.
That’s a no-no, y’all. I know you were in a hurry and probably intended to rewrite it. I don’t go looking for trouble; in fact, I’m not looking at all. I don’t assume all writers copy. And when I see one copied sentence, I just think it was an oversight. When I see many copied passages, though, I think you were lazy at best and dishonest at worst, and I immediately let your acquiring editor know.
Of course, it’s fine to copy and paste if the material will be quoted and cited: “In his book On Writing Well, William Zinsser says, ‘We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.’” See how that works?
But once I come across that second copied paragraph, I do start keeping an eye out. I’ll see a passage that doesn’t sound like the author’s writing. Sometimes the author will make some claim and I’ll think, Really? (Or: No way!) And in the course of researching, I’ll discover the whole paragraph was lifted right from Wikipedia (or some other online source)! Then I’m suspicious, so I do start looking for it.
The thing is, that sentence or that paragraph tends to leap off the page at me anyway. Because when I say it doesn’t sound like the author’s writing, what I mean is the copied material is much more polished than the author’s own writing. All writers have a voice and a style (and tics), whether they realize it or not, so when they start folding someone else’s lines into their own, it’s visible to a practiced eye. If I find myself wondering if two writers worked on the manuscript, I take a look around. One of them may be (ahem) uncredited.
I should add there is yet another hint that something’s amiss. HTML—the programming language used to create web pages—uses a slightly different symbol for the space between words.** In MS Word, when you have the invisibles turned on (as I always do) the space between words is represented by a simple, centered dot. But HTML also has a bluish splotch [technical term] to the upper right of the centered dot. When I see those splotches, I am wary. Sometimes (not always) the splotched spacing actually holds the words together, as if they were all one word, so the text doesn’t wrap to the next line. Regardless, the splotches are a dead giveaway that the material was copied somewhere on the web.
I had an author reusing material he’d written for other sources (his blog, the blogs of others where he’d been a guest writer, the website of another publisher where he’d contributed an article, even a writer’s group blog where he was a regular contributor). The manuscript was full of splotches. His attitude, when I mentioned I’d found whole sections of it appearing online was: “Well, I wrote it.” True enough. But all the other blogs except his own had problematic copyright issues—that is, they belonged to someone else, to some other entity that was not the publisher to whom he was submitting the manuscript.
Surely this man’s agent had, at some point, had a discussion with him about copyright law? He had more than one book in print. I can’t tell you how or when I learned what I know about intellectual property, but I can tell you for sure I learned about plagiarism in high school.
The definitions haven’t changed, friends. Kids don’t know any better, and that’s why all those character-building articles mention plagiarism: there’s an epidemic of it. Just because Wikipedia operates under the Creative Commons license that allows the free distribution of its material doesn’t mean it’s yours for the taking.
So here’s another hint. I research things all the time. I copy and paste, because I like having the pertinent material collected in front of me as I piece my thoughts together. But I never paste directly into my manuscript. I always have a second document open, called [Manuscript Name] NOTES or [Manuscript Name] RESEARCH, and I paste it there (along with the URL that will lead me back to the whole article). I rewrite, or compose my own article just below, then I move the rewritten material into my draft. This is handy for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with plagiarism. Think about it.
* This doesn’t seem to be a problem with novelists. Ha.
** I don’t know if I’m using the right language for this, so bear with me.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”