Let’s Talk (Again) About Plagiarism

Me, I’m an editor. And a writer. I’ve been earning a portion of my living as a writer for decades. I’ve been a self-employed editor for more than twelve years. I have a lot of friends who are editors or writers.

So when, back in January, Monica Crowley—an author and television personality—was forced to withdraw from taking a prestigious position with the incoming presidential administration when it was discovered she had plagiarized* chunks of her 2012 book published by HarperCollins, I posted a smart-aleck remark on Facebook for my audience of editors and writers and other smart-alecks:

Yes, this is a problem. (Not a political problem. A problem in publishing.) Shoulda hired me, HarperCollins. Just sayin’.

I know, I know. :)

But immediately, one of my editor friends commented, “I see small examples of this all the time from people who think it’s no big deal—‘Nobody will notice and nobody will care’ and that sort of thing. I am constantly trying to explain how it can come back to bite them.”

As it bit Ms. Crowley. She lost a job, HarperCollins withdrew the best-selling book from sale, and her reputation, her character, is irreparably, publicly damaged.

I wrote about this last summer, because I’d just been working on a project that engaged in this very thing—“little” things that “nobody will notice”—and it bothered me. It’s not true that no one will notice, because experienced editors do notice.

We don’t assume all writers are plagiarists. But we notice things.

It starts, sometimes, with fact-checking. The editor just wants to be sure, so she looks up something you’ve mentioned, and—oops—there’s a whole paragraph you copied from Wikipedia! No, just because Wikipedia says you can use, edit, and distribute its content, it doesn’t mean you can copy it and present it as your own in material you plan to sell for profit. (Here’s more from Wikipedia on this subject.)

Or it starts with quoted material. You quote and cite the online source; the editor checks to make sure the link still works. Then she eyeballs the quote to be sure your transcription was faithful, and discovers your segue sentences are remarkably similar to the original source. (This is called “close paraphrasing.”)

Now the editor’s suspicious. She notices a passage that doesn’t sound like your writing, googles, and—boom—plagiarism again.

Your Editor does all this checking by hand, but you know there’s software for this, right? Oh, yes:

iThenticate is the leading provider of professional plagiarism detection and prevention technology used worldwide by scholarly publishers and research institutions to ensure the originality of written work before publication. iThenticate helps editors, authors and researchers prevent misconduct by comparing manuscripts against its database of over 60 billion web pages and 155 million content items, including 49 million works from 800 scholarly publisher participants.

(Oops, HarperCollins.)

So don’t do it, y’all. Just don’t.

* It’s not the first time she’d been accused. Wikipedia says, “Her documented plagiarism involves her 2000 Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia University, her 2012 book … and a Wall Street Journal article in 1999.”

UPDATE: It appears our newest Supreme Court justice is also a plagiarist. Make of it what you will.

Here are some related articles:
Plagiarizing, A Quick Aside
The Book, er, Blog Thief
Be Careful What You Copy and Paste
Legal Issues

Tweet: Plagiarism: “little” things that “nobody will notice”? Not likely!
Tweet: Let’s talk (again) about plagiarism. Please.

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.”


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  1. I’m an avid reader and when I write a creative description, I start wondering, “Have I read that phrase somewhere?” How does a writer avoid accidental plagiarizing? Maybe, I don’ t have to worry about it since you are my editor.