Friday, July 24, 2009


July 17 was Anti-Plagiarism Day.

I’m a week late and a dollar short, and the blog post to which I’ve linked, from Jane Smith’s “How Publishing Really Works”, sums up so many notorious cases of plagiarism in this industry that there’s not much I can add. But it did make me remember a case of plagiarism that I once encountered, years ago.

This was back when I used to post on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board under the handle “Queen of Swords”. A relatively new poster started a thread saying that one of her professors had asked to meet with her to discuss an essay she had handed in, and she was worried that she would be accused of plagiarism. She was adamant that she hadn’t done it, and put the text of her essay up on the discussion board for us to read.

Someone Googled a sentence or three from it. An article (written by someone else) showed up on the first page of hits, and matched the rest of the essay perfectly too.

The backlash against the poster was pretty severe, especially since many of us had originally reacted with sympathy. Someone even emailed the dean of her college with a link to the discussion. I’m still not sure why the student asked us for support when she knew she was in the wrong – perhaps she was in denial – but she had an explanation for why her essay was identical to the article. She’d copied the article off the web to use in research, and then she had mistaken it for the rough draft of her own essay and handed it in by mistake.


Plagiarism these days is all the more difficult to get away with. But also easier. On the one hand, it’s incredibly easy to enter text into a search engine and see what comes up. On the other hand, outside of an academic setting, plagiarism is more difficult to detect and identify. Plagiarists could, for instance, copy from out-of-print novels or (relatively) obscure articles, such as the one on black-footed ferrets which was plagiarized for a bodice-ripper.

It’s not as kinky as it sounds, honest.

Back when I had no money to buy a plane ticket to get out of the Middle East, I wrote some college application essays for a young man with more cash than spelling. I’m not proud of it, but I didn’t feel there was any other choice under those circumstances. Ripping off someone else’s writing wouldn’t be something I could do even then, though. Who would ever trust that anything I produced after that was my own work?

Plagiarism is just a bad thing all around.


Anonymous said...

My own experience with it was in high school, before computers. I was in a creative writing class, and we had to write a story for class. One of the stories was quite long, and fantastic. But as I listened to the student read the story aloud, I kept thinking that I'd seen it before. As we wrote up our comments on it, where I'd seen it hit me--Reader's Digest. I was even familiar enough with it to know she'd changed the gender of the POV and the names. So in my comments, which I knew the teacher would read first, I told her she shouldn't have copied it from Reader's Digest.

The class was volunteer, so it didn't make any sense why she plagiarized in the first place.

Marian Perera said...

I think that in cases like this, they just want to be admired for writing a good, entertaining story. Even if they don't personally have the ability to produce such a story.

Kami said...

With internet being such a ready source for research, and because it's used poorly for that, I've had a really hard time explaining to my son the difference between basically copying over someone's ideas with minor word changes and *learning* the material and then coming up with a paper on your own. So many of his classmates copy and paste without even trying to go the tiny distance my son goes to separate himself from online material makes this lesson even harder to transmit. He feels he's already going above and beyond by typing it in on his own using his own words. It's tough.

Anonymous said...

Every year I read essays from sixth through eighth graders for an essay contest. I'd say usually about 1/5 are plagiarized, with only a few words changed or paragraphs moved around (the latter are actually funny when you try to read them).
The kids really think they won't get caught.

Marian Perera said...

Hey Kami,

It must be difficult when the problem is so prevalent - then it seems like a normal thing that everyone does rather than an act of theft or deception.

I just realized that there is a way to inadvertently commit plagiarism - if certain phrases or expressions stick in the memory, it might be possible to use these in a piece of writing without being aware that they're from an external source.

But in such a case, I'd expect the copied material to be just short phrases and expressions rather than great chunks of material.