Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Uh oh....plagiarism


Plagiarism is passing off as your own someone else’s work, ideas, thoughts, opinions, theories, statistics, facts, drawings, or paraphrasing the same. Recently several journalists and politicians were caught plagiarizing. Doris Kearns Goodwin, a well-known Pulitzer Prize winner, historian and political commentator was found to have plagiarized portions of her book about the Fitzgeralds and Kennedys. Other books she authored have also come under criticism. She admitted to some of it saying  “that she had an understanding that citations would not be required for all references, and that extensive footnotes already existed. Many doubted her claims, and she was forced to resign from the Pulitzer Prize board.” []   

Jane Goodall, internationally known primatologist, was proved to have plagiarized many sections of her book Seeds of Hope. Jonah Rehrer who was a science and technical writer for the NYT was accused of falsifying quotes as well as general plagiarism. Freed Zakaria, CNN commentator and editor at Time magazine was ultimately reinstated after he was accused of plagiarizing his own work! He failed to note that the lines in one article in TIME had been published in another magazine.

Joe Biden withdrew from the presidential race in 1988 after it was found that he plagiarized a paper in law school. He was also found to have copied for his campaign speeches without noting from British politician Neil Kinnock. Rand Paul has been caught plagiarizing in one of his books. Vladimir Putin is accused of lifting several passages of his economic dissertation from a text book written by two University of Pittsburgh teachers. Alex Haley, Barack Obama, George Harrison and many video game authors have been accused and/or charged with plagiarism.

 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.een accused of plagiarism.
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.

The punishments are of varying degrees often depending upon the venue and the amount of material copied. It seems to also depend upon your status in your field and your sponsoring company. Authors writing for well-known magazines or newspapers sometimes seem to be able to slide past legal reprisals, as do some financially lucrative authors. The publishers protect their popular writers. For the rest of us, 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 from the book or article with the plagiarism. 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 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.”

(Disclaimer: this author does not represent the material in the essay to be thought of as legal knowledge or advice under any terms or conditions.

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