Six Things Everyone Needs to Know About Plagiarism (Yes, Even You)

It happened again.  A prominent public figure was discovered to be guilty of plagiarism.  Likely 2016 Presidential candidate Benjamin Carson is the most recent, but he is hardly alone in the history of highly visible cases of plagiarism. Alex Haley, Stephen Ambrose,  Barack Obama, Rand PaulMartin Luther King, Jr., and Joe Biden are just a few of the more infamous practitioners of plagiarism in recent history. 

We find ourselves today in the information society John Naisbitt wrote about in his New York Times bestselling book Megatrends in 1982. We are swimming in words and ideas, the intangibility of which does not make them less deserving of respect than any other sort of property. The fact that they are proliferating exponentially and driving large aspects of the economy is indicative of their importance. And yet as more people than ever are publicly trading in words via social media and blogs, it has become harder to circumscribe that which should be respected as the intellectual property of another. Memes get started and passed along; words and expressions get created and take off in popularity; Facebook posts go viral. It can be difficult to tell who ought to get credit for what. And yet we should try. Particularly when it comes to material published in the form of articles, speeches, and books, there is little excuse for not making an effort to properly attribute one’s sources.

Benjamin Carson did the right thing. When the indiscretion was made public, he issued an immediate apology. I don’t believe that one instance of plagiarism should automatically be a career-ending incident (and neither does the rest of the world, judging by how quickly offenders bounce back from these things). People make mistakes. Sometimes they make bad choices. If they acknowledge and explain those errors, make restitution for them, and don’t exhibit signs of serial behavior, the apology should be accepted and we should all move on. But we shouldn’t dismiss the seriousness of plagiarism. And those of us who traffic in words, whether professionally or casually on our private blogs, should take to heart the value of intellectual merchandise and make every effort to do so honestly.

To that end, here are six guiding principles for avoiding plagiarism. Feel free to share with your favorite politician. 

  1. The most obvious type of material requiring documentation is the direct quotation. It seems like a no-brainer that if you reproduce the exact words of another, you must give credit.Yet in the annals of plagiarism, this seems to be the most oft-broken rule.The list of Dr.Carson’s offenses documented by Buzzfeed contains multiple instances of unattributed direct quotes. How could this happen? Certainly someone with the academic credentials of the good doctor knows better! My theory is that this happens to public figures so frequently and easily because of their ability to hand off much of the grunt work of writing a book to underlings. Politicians are widely known for giving speeches that others have penned for them; celebrities likewise often put their names to books that were largely ghost-written.(I remember, when I was much younger, being told that Ronald Reagan wrote his own speeches. I was surprised that this was noteworthy. Didn’t everyone write his own speeches? Um, no.) Dr. Carson said he trusted that his editorial team was seeing to the work of attribution, but obviously that team dropped the ball.Still, the ultimate responsibility lies with the guy whose name is on the cover.
  2. While we’re on the subject of direct quotes, one of the points I used to drill into my own students was that dropping a quotation in the middle of a body of text without any sort of introduction is a huge no-no. Such quotations are also known as “dumped” quotes.(You can read into that whatever you want.) If you are directly quoting someone, it is proper to lead into the quotation with an identifying tag, such as “According to George Will” or “In the words of Charles Krauthammer” or, simply, “Peggy Noonan says.” If you take this very simple approach, you are not likely to forget the quotation marks or overlook the fact that a citation is needed.
  3. But it is not just direct quotations that require documentation. If you are borrowing the idea of another, even if you are putting it “in your own words” (as all our English teachers begged us to do), you need to give credit to the source.When someone makes a fresh contribution to a field of study, either through a new discovery or a new way of looking at existing knowledge, that work is protected. Passing it along without attribution is stealing.
  4. Speaking of putting things in your own words, paraphrasing is accomplished not by going through the original source and changing every third word (that maintains the basic structure and syntax of the original) but by being so well versed in the material that you are able to set aside all sources and confidently restate that which you have internalized.(After so doing you should compare your version to the sources you are working with to make sure you didn’t inadvertently “borrow” some of the original phrasing.)
  5. Does that mean that every piece of information you disseminate that did not spring full-grown from your own jam-packed brain must be documented? No. Accepted truths or widely known facts, also known as “common knowledge,” are by definition available in multiple sources and therefore not traceable to one. So if I state that Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, I don’t have to identify a source. It’s a simple, verifiable fact. But if I share the specific perspective of one historian on the events leading up to and following Lee’s surrender and the meaning of the event in American history, I must credit that historian. (And as I used to tell my composition students, if it is news to you that Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, ending the Civil War in 1865, you should go ahead and provide your source, since it deserves credit for enlightening you.)
  6. Finally, what of social media? All of the rules above can be extended to other forms of communication, including email, Twitter, Facebook, and the like. Additionally, common courtesy should hold sway. If you like someone’s status update and want to share it, ask first. (I admit I have not always done this.) If permission is granted, put the information in quotation marks and name the one who said it. If you link to an article and pull a sentence or two out to quote, use quotation marks. If you pass along a news item or article that you saw on someone else’s “wall,” offer a “hat tip” (abbreviated HT) to the person who made it known to you.

Maybe this all seems yawn-inducingly academic. Didn’t we leave this sort of thing back in English 101? Maybe we did, but we shouldn’t have. It could be argued that things like the written word, works of art, and musical compositions are even more deserving of our respect and protection than other types of property. After all, when we leave this world most of what we have accumulated will either be disposed of or passed on to someone else, no more to bear our name. The things of the earth pass away, but the utterances of our minds and hearts have the potential to carry on our legacy long after we are in the ground (especially in the internet age when everyone is sharing his thoughts with the cosmos and nothing is ever truly deleted). Our words are what make us human.  Let us treat them with care.

“A word is dead

When it is said,

Some say.

I say it just

Begins to live

That day.”

-- Emily Dickinson

For more information on plagiarism and how to avoid it, see Plagiarism.org

Cheryl Magness's articles have appeared in The Federalist and Notes for Life, a publication of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. She blogs at Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife.