Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Are you plagiarizing?

Just because you're not copying someone else's work exactly as written, doesn't mean that you're not guilty of plagiarism. As writers who often rely on other sources for facts pertinent to our own news reporting, we must have an accurate understanding of exactly what is and what isn't plagiarism. Rather than relying on my own interpretation of the term plagiarism, let's look at a couple of independent sources.

The Instrument of Judicial Governance from the University of North Carolina defines plagiarism as "deliberate or reckless representation of another's words, thoughts, or ideas as one's own without attribution..." I added the bold for emphasis. defines the term as follows:
"The intentional or unintentional use of another's words or ideas without acknowledging this use consitutes plagiarism..." Simply enough, right? As long as you, at some point in your article say what you've 'borrowed,' you're covered, right? Wrong. goes on to say: "There are four common forms of plagiarism:
  • Duplication of another author's words without quotation marks and accurate references or footnotes.
  • The duplication of another author's words or phrases with footnotes or accurate references, but without quotation marks.
  • The use of another author's ideas in paraphrase without accurate references or footnotes.
  • Submitting a paper in which exact words are merely rearranged even though footnoted."
Again the bold is mine for emphasis of certain points. Let's go over these four forms of plagiarism, one by one. Then, I'll give four examples of published news articles reporting the same event to help understand how to follow these points in practice.

The first of these four, I think, is pretty clearly understood. Copying another person's work without crediting them is wrong and constitutes plagiarism. Few would have issue with that.

The second may be less widely known. Most might say, ok, I forgot quotation marks (or didn't know I needed them), but I correctly credited the source of the material I used, so it isn't plagiarism. Not quite, the purpose of the quotation marks is to set aside the borrowed material, so that readers know exactly what was borrowed from your cited source and what is your own creation. In the age of Internet, it may be permissible to use other forms to delineate exactly what was taken.

An indented bit of text, with a different background color, font, or size that is intentionally made to appear as though it were cut and pasted from another source, could, arguably substitute for quotation marks, so long as the source is properly attributed, for example.

The exact beginning and end of the quoted text should, however, be made unambiguously clear to the reader. Without quotation marks, the reader cannot tell what part of your writing is yours and what, exactly, is someone else's creation.

The third bullet point is where I, unfortunately, see either much ignorance, confusion or disregard for the definition of plagiarism. It is plagiarism to read an article written by someone else, and rewrite it in your own words, without fully, specifically, and properly citing that source, according to the definition. Reading a New York Times report that says:
"Among the more than 80 people that activist groups reported killed by rockets and bombs through the day, two were Western journalists, the veteran American war correspondent Marie Colvin, who had been working for The Sunday Times of London, and a young French photographer, Rémi Ochlik." Does not give you liberty to write in your article: "A French photographer and a Sunday Times of London reporter were killed during fighting in Syria," without directly citing the source of that specific piece of information. Furthermore, citing the NYT article once at the beginning of your piece does not give you leave to paraphrase the entire article or major sections of it, or to paraphrase it in multiple places throughout your article without further attribution. For example, on the first page of the above-referenced NYT piece, you'll find three specific references to information that the authors gleaned from one or more Reuters reports, as well as other citations for other facts and statements that they used.

Lastly, the fourth bullet of the definition tells us that we can't shirk our responibility to use quotation marks and specific attribution, just by rearraging the words. If some wrote "The police apprehended the suspect at 4:30 pm, on Saturday." You can't simply write "On Saturday, at 4:30 pm, police apprehended the suspect," without quotation marks and accurate references or footnotes. That still represents the original author's idea and words, not yours.

Here are examples of the same event reported by four separate sources.
1) WMUR report of a harp seal on a Hampton, New Hampshire beach published at 2:33 pm on February 19th
2) A report of the same event published at published on February 20th
3) My own report of the event at published late in the day on February 19th 
4) A report from Foster's Daily Democrat published on February 21st

(Note: Go read them, but don't leave nasty comments accusing anyone of anything, please. My purpose in writing this isn't to call anybody out, but to educate based on some convenient examples that I had on hand.)

Of these four, the WMUR report was the first published. I was at the scene and have first-hand knowledge that residents attending the event contacted WMUR. From the wording of the WMUR report, it also appears that the author also contacted The New England Aquarium for additional information although they did not specify that source by name.

The second example needs a bit more scrutiny. The first paragraph, appears fine from a palgiarism perspective. There's a sentence containing two factual statements and a proper attribution to the WMUR article that I used as example #1. Note, however, that the article says the seal "washed up" on the beach, which is a factually inaccurate assumption by the author based on the WMUR report that  the seal "was out of the water."

The first sentence of the next paragraph at violates the second bullet point of the definition of plagiarism. It is a word for word copy of the statement made by WMUR without quotation marks, but properly referenced. This gives the impression that the author created more of that sentence's wording than "the television station said." The rest of the article's second paragraph is a combination of direct quotes and paraphrasing of the WMUR article's third paragraph. The author has done nothing original here except to change one perfectly good WMUR sentence into a fragment, and change the source of the pronouncement of a healthy diagnosis that WMUR attributed to The New England Aquarium, to the volunteer (from the Blue Ocean Society) who never, in fact, spoke to WMUR before the WMUR article was initially published.

The first sentence of the third paragraph of the article is lifted directly from the WMUR article's second paragraph although the "author" changed the word "common" from WMUR's report to "not unusual" in his. He also dropped the words "when they want sleep or" from the WMUR report, otherwise copying their sentence verbatim. There is no attribution at all for the ideas or the copied words in the third paragraph of the article. The next "sentence," (I use the term lightly, since it is actually a sentence fragment) is another assumption by the author guessing at the emotional state of the onlookers that WMUR said were present. The remainining sentence and a half of the article are original, linking two earlier articles by the same author on related topics (although I can't vouch for the originality of those two linked articles).

Plagiarism? According to the USLegal definition, unequivocably. Was the author aware that he was plagiarizing? Given the grammatical errors in the article, one could argue that he was unaware of his crime, which, given USLegal's "intentional or unintentional" verbiage, would make no difference in court, by the way.

The third example is one that I wrote published after the WMUR report. It however, contains much information not contained in the WMUR report, based on my personal knowledge and first-hand reporting, as I personally witnessed the events and spoke directly to the volunteer from the Blue Ocean Society who was alerted to the seal's presence by the New England Aquarium. There are no phrases or ideas lifted from the WMUR report. Paraphrased information from The New England Aquarium is properly cited. The facts in the final paragraph were written from my own knowledge, but since they may not be common knowledge to a majority of readers, in retrospect, they should have been cited from some independent source, to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

The fourth article, from Foster's Daily Democrat, was written by someone who was clearly not present at the location. It is quite possible that the author of this article was alerted to the situation by reading one of the previously published articles, but they contacted original sources, spoke to a named individual at The New England Aquarium extensively as well as the Blue Ocean Society volunteer. Although this article uses sources common to other articles, the New England Aquarium and Patty Adell, it is clearly original. The Foster's reporter may (or may not) have gotten the idea for the story from another published source, but he did his own reporting and did not simply rehash any existing articles that he may have read. 

You Don't Have to be On the Scene to Write About It

These examples consist two articles created by people involved directly at the time the reported event was occurring (one at the scene, one by telephone), and two created by people who apparently learned of the event afterward. You don't have to be at the scene to write about an event, but you do have to do more than repeat what someone else has already written, whether or not you paraphrase their exact words - even if you cite your source.

If you create even a properly attributed article based on other published sources and every sentence refers to another source, then, quite aside from issues of palgiarism, you should ask yourself exactly what you are bringing to the table. What are you offering the reader?

It might be a unique analysis of the events, a comparison of the event's coverage by several different sources, additional information not contained in previous reports, a more complete report than is found elsewhere by amalgamating information from a variety of sources, or anything else that makes your article uniquely your own and of unique value to the reader rather than a simple rewrite of someone else's work. Even if your editor allows simple rewrites to slide by, it's not your work and you have no business publishing it to steal traffic from the original source.


  1. I was ignorant of the second bulleted example. I have posted song lyrics on Facebook without using the quotes even though I indicated the song and artist. Nice to know this now so I do not do it again!