When we were kids in school, we knew that plagiarizing was cheating. It was the reason we couldn’t write our reports by copying a textbook or trying to pass off a Wikipedia page as our own.
As adults writing and editing for a variety of companies, customers, as well as our personal projects, the act of plagiarizing isn’t as clear-cut.
Plagiarizing now comes in multiple forms, and many instances are accidental. Intentional or not, stolen copy can cause a problem. Whether your content is published online, a local paper, or an international publication, you need to make sure the copy is original.
In this post, we’ll discuss the most important aspects of plagiarism that any writer or editor should know.
What is plagiarism?
In simple terms, plagiarism is representing someone else’s work, words, or ideas as your own.
This can be done with or without the other person’s consent. You don’t have to be directly stealing or copying another person’s writing for it to be considered plagiarism. Sometimes plagiarism is accidental, and it’s even possible to plagiarize yourself.
Here are a few examples of plagiarism:
Why is plagiarism so bad?
The short answer? Plagiarizing is a breach of professional and academic integrity. It’s considered to be stealing and comes with some serious consequences.
In grade school, if you copied someone else’s work, you might just get a failing grade. But plagiarizing in the workplace has much higher stakes. You could get fired, have to pay hefty fines, or maybe even face jail time.
For example, if you write for a company, copying and pasting someone else’s words without rewriting it can put your employer’s reputation and business at risk.
Is plagiarism a crime?
Aside from being unethical, plagiarism can be considered a copyright infringement that comes with legal ramifications. Works protected by copyright law allow the intellectual property owner exclusivity to make copies of their creative work for a set period.
If someone were to copy the protected work without consent and distribute or sell it, they could end up in court. Though civil or criminal cases involving plagiarism are rare, especially when the work is not protected by copyright, they are possible.
In short, not all plagiarism is considered to be illegal. But, even if you aren’t technically committing a crime, plagiarism is unethical and can easily damage your career and professional relationships. You certainly don’t want to be on the wrong end of a “Cease and Desist” letter.
Four common types of plagiarism
Plagiarism comes in several different forms. Here are the four most commonly known types of plagiarism to be aware of when writing content:
1. Direct plagiarism
Direct plagiarism involves copying someone’s work, or a piece of their work, word-for-word without giving any credit to the original source. Sometimes, the writer may try to delete a few words or sentences to make the stolen work appear less obvious. Even with a few sentences changed or removed, this type of blatant plagiarism is wrong.
Without citing the source of the work or using quotation marks to show the content was written by someone else, this is considered direct plagiarism. Often, this direct type of plagiarism is the easiest to spot and is usually the result of intentional actions.
For example, in academic writing, it could be a student trying to pass off another student’s term paper as their own. That’s easiest to find since you can require all students to run their papers through a free plagiarism checker — such as Turnitin or Writer’s own — before they hand it in.
2. Accidental plagiarism
Accidental plagiarism — a.k.a. unintentional plagiarism — occurs when someone uses another’s work, often word-for-word, without giving proper credit. Unlike direct plagiarism, this type of copying isn’t done with the intent of passing the work off as their own.
For instance, a writer describing the benefits of their favorite CRM software on their personal blog could describe a case study on the CRM software’s website. If they copied and pasted the case study as an example but didn’t cite their source, the writer would be guilty of accidental plagiarism. This is true even though the writer wasn’t looking to profit off the information and was using it to share their love of the software. In this case, the writer either wasn’t aware that the source needed to be credited or simply forget. Either way, they accidentally plagiarized.
3. Mosaic plagiarism
Mosaic plagiarism, otherwise known as “patchwriting” or “incremental plagiarism,” is a bit trickier to spot than the two types of plagiarism above. With mosaic plagiarism, the writer paraphrases someone’s work without citing or crediting the original source. However, simply putting the work into your own words doesn’t mean that the idea isn’t being copied. This is particularly true if you follow the same structure as the source.
With this type of plagiarism, the writer may borrow from one or multiple sources. Often, mosaic plagiarism is an intentional act. Omitting or paraphrasing someone else’s work requires correct citation, just as if you had directly copied the sentences.
Self-plagiarism is a form of reusing or recycling your previous work. Instead of borrowing from someone else, you copy your own work. This is common in the academic world, where students can be caught reusing pieces of previously written papers or resubmitting entire works as a new assignment. However, professional writers that specialize in a specific industry or topic can find themselves at regular risk of self-plagiarizing due to the repetitive nature of their content.
Just as this is unethical in academic settings, it can be just as problematic in the workplace. For instance, Google algorithms typically penalize duplicate content. Publishing two near-identical articles on the same website can do more harm than good for a company’s search rankings. Not to mention that rehashing old content can quickly lose the interest of your audience.
Another issue to consider with self-plagiarism is the fact that you may no longer own the words you’ve written. This is particularly common for freelancers and agencies. Writing similar content for two different clients could easily result in problematic self-plagiarism.
How to avoid plagiarism
The simplest way to avoid plagiarizing someone else’s work is to always attribute quotes and give proper credit when it’s due. This means properly citing your sources and including quotation marks when possible.
If you need to paraphrase, do so carefully. This means you don’t simply find similar words — or synonyms — to swap out but instead rewrite the material in an original way. Change up the structure and rewrite the work using your take on the information. This is true when it comes to self-plagiarism, too. Don’t just rewrite a word or phrase when writing on the same topic multiple times. Instead, approach the material from a fresh perspective with each new piece.
It’s important to note that copyrighted works cannot be used in many cases, even if you cite the source. Be sure to pay attention to any copyrighted works you reference. Check for the rules and regulations that apply to the individual piece. Some might be able to be used with proper credit, but others could be off-limits. If you aren’t sure, it’s better to be safe than sorry and avoid including the piece in your written work.
How to use a plagiarism checker
One of the most useful ways to avoid plagiarism is to use a plagiarism check tool.
Plagiarism detection tools let you check sentences or entire articles. Depending on the capabilities of the software, you can run a test to see if your content risks plagiarizing existing indexed web pages online, or you can manually enter two different pieces to check for potential plagiarism. The latter option is particularly useful for checking for instances of self-plagiarism with your work.
There are multiple options available for plagiarism checking software. Listed below are some of the most common plagiarism detector tools you can choose from:
The options above have a variety of free and premium features available, depending on your specific use case and needs.
The key to avoiding plagiarism is to be aware of the risk. Even with the best of intentions, it’s possible to accidentally plagiarize your sources or even yourself. Strive to create original content every time you write and use a plagiarism tool to check your work when you’re finished.