Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"It was a dark and stormy night.." Plagiarism and You
“Two weeks after disgraced journalist Jonah Lehrer publicly apologized for the “frailties” and “weaknesses” that led to his firing from The New Yorker and withdrawal of his bestselling book Imagine, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), publisher of all three of Lehrer’s books, has decided it will no longer offer for sale his second book, How We Decide. After an internal review uncovered significant problems with the book, the publisher is “taking How We Decide off-sale” and has “no plans to reissue it in the future,” HMH senior vice president Bruce Nichols said in an email.” ( 3/1/13)

“…in recent years as several search engines have come online for the express purpose of tracking duplicate images. Though, most notably, this has included Tineye, other search engines, including Google, have gotten in on the act as well.
Now, a Firefox extension, Who Stole My Pictures (WSMP), is aiming at making all of those search engines available at one convenient place, your right click menu, thus making it trivial to search for plagiarism of your images or duplicates of any image you find online.” (

   It was a dark and stormy night when I sat down to write a column about plagiarism. Actually, it was not Charles Schultz and Snoopy who first uttered these now famous first seven words but Edward George Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), British playwright, poet and novelist. He also wrote, “The pen is mightier than the sword”, “the great unwashed” and “pursuit of the almighty dollar.” To avoid the charge of plagiarism, I should have written, “It was a dark and stormy night” (Edward George Bulwer-Lyttonn)

   Plagiarism is passing off someone else’s work, ideas, thoughts, opinions, theories, statistics, facts, drawings, or paraphrasing the same. There are 5 common forms of plagiarisms: 
1.    Duplicating another’s words or phrases, etc. without identifying the speaker or author, or not using quotation marks.
2.    Same as #1 except including quotation marks.
3.    Using another’s ideas by paraphrasing them without noting sources.
4.    Submit, enter or sell as your own work by merely rearranging words and/or phrases without footnotes.
5.    Intentional or unintentional, ignorance of the law is no defense.

   The devil is in the details, however. According to copyright laws established in 1989, works are now protected with or without the copyright symbol; they are considered intellectual property. As long as the material can be shown to belong to someone other than you, even though altered but similar to the original form, without acknowledgement, it is considered plagiarism. Copyright laws do not protect facts considered “common knowledge.” Common knowledge is defined loosely as information generally known or known by a large group of people, e.g., Roosevelt was the author of the New Deal. Copyright laws can be in effect up to 75 years after the death of the author. There are many variants of the length depending upon how old the work is and who owns the copyright.

  Another gray area is “public domain.” This often, but not always, means intellectual property that “belongs” to the public and can therefore be used freely. There are variations of law depending on copyright laws in different countries as well as patents and trademarks. It is best to check with an attorney. (Disclaimer: this author does not represent the material in the essay to be thought of as legal knowledge or advice under any terms. 

   The punishments are of varying degrees often depending upon the venue and the amount of material copied. The greater the amount of material copied the greater the punishment can be.  Most cases are considered misdemeanors bringing fines between $100 and $50,000 and can be accompanied by up to one year in jail. Generally, your offense is considered a felony if you earn more than about $2,500. The punishment could be upwards of $250,000 and ten years jail time. In a business situation, the punishment is usually not of the prosecutorial kind (unless sued by the original author.) It takes the form of a demotion, denial of promotions, monetary fine or firing. In the academic world, the punishment is often meted out by the professor which can result in a failing grade, failing the course or, under the auspices of the dean’s office, expulsion from the college or university. The easy use of the Internet has increased the instances of plagiarism many fold in all venues.

    There are a few ways to protect yourself from prosecution of plagiarism. First, avoid plagiarizing by understanding what constitutes plagiarism. When taking notes from various sources for your writing, clearly identify anything that is not in the public domain or not in your original words and thoughts. Keep all your notes, electronic, recorded and penned, in several backups in various venues; back up your computer file each time under a different name, e.g., essay plagerism-1, essay plagerism-2, etc. This will give you a paper and time trail to strengthen your case should you be charged or you wish to charge someone else with plagiarism.

 Check the style manuals for the organization for which you are writing as to how to format your written word. APA is the American Psychological Association used primarily in liberal arts settings, ACS (American Chemical Association) for writing in the science field, AP and Chicago styles for general writing. Publishing houses and business often have in house guidelines they wish authors to follow. Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, began his book, “It was the best of times…” If you fail to properly credit your sources in your writing, it could easily become, “…the worst of times.” 



J. Moyer said...

Great article. Kids today in school think it's easy to just copy and paste. I try to tell my kids that just as these writers wrote in their own words it is important to use their own words too. Even adults need a reminder to give credit on their sources and how they obtained their information.

Jennifer Rova said...

Thanks. I found a lot of web sites that offered thesis papers or essays "for free." I found just as many sites warning people about using these sites. Learning to write is hard but once you practice, it is a life long skill that employers look for and in which you can have pride.