The word “plagiarism” comes from the Latin “plagiarius,” ‘kidnapper.’ Plagiarism is stealing other people’s precious children, their words and ideas. Writers consider their words and ideas as part of their self, so we could call plagiarism a form of identity theft.
Plagiarism is presenting another person’s words and ideas as our own. It’s borrowing without credit.
We use other people’s words and ideas all the time, often unknowingly. I suspect that phrase just above, “borrowing without credit,” came from somebody else, but I don’t recognize it, and so can’t credit it. Borrowing is fine, as long as you do it honestly and acknowledge the source.
One form of plagiarism is publishing a whole work by someone else as your own. If the piece is copyrighted, you’ve violated that person’s legal rights, and made yourself subject to a civil suit. Such wholesale plagiarism is rare, luckily, and a form of fraud.
Another is taking bits and pieces of a work and splicing them into your own writing without identifying the origin. This common practice has become epidemic in our age of cut-and-paste and the Internet. It’s usually easy to spot, because the voice changes twice, before and after the insertion. Readers notice when you sound like Maureen Dowd in one paragraph, George Will in the next, and Herman Melville after that, interspersed with bumpy sentences.
A third form, called “patchwriting,” very common in schools, involves taking a passage and changing a few words, moving things around, deleting a little, etc., in other words, editing, again without credit.
All of these practices are literary sins against the integrity of another writer’s identity, thought, and effort.
Why do writers plagiarize? Mostly they lack confidence in their own ability to do creditable work. Or they’re having a dry spell and simply can’t write at all. Or they drown in envy of other writers’ success. Or they get in a hurry and take shortcuts. Or they want higher esteem, usually a grade, than their own talents and efforts deserve.
Why shouldn’t you plagiarize? For the same reason you don’t swipe other people’s children: it’s dishonest and destructive. Destructive not just to the people you steal from, but also to you. Plagiarism becomes a habit and progressively lowers your self-esteem, leading to more plagiarism and worse writing.You cheat yourself as well as the person you plagiarize. If you borrow others’ work, you don’t learn anything. You don’t master the information, and you don’t improve as a wordsmith by stealing words.
Nowadays, in our era of search engines and online companies that specialize in spotting copying, plagiarists almost always get caught. If nobody catches them, they do it again, and again, until they do get caught. All the plagiarists I know have a record of getting away with it, until they didn’t.
Plagiarists, regardless of their motives, become outcasts, ranking just slightly above kidnappers.
How can your prevent plagiarism in your own writing?
First, take careful notes, clearly identifying sources. I write my initials, “DF,” in my notebook margin to distinguish what I said and thought from what the source offered. Use consistent systems that will remain clear to you (and perhaps to a jury) long after publication.
Second, be aware of when you’re quoting and when you’re paraphrasing. Mark quotes clearly with indentation or quotation marks, and attribute so the readers know where the quote came from. Accompany paraphrases with clear attribution. Where you’ve borrowed just the idea and none of the words, you still include the source. Transparency pays off in reader trust.
Third, tell your readers exactly where the material came from. Besides being honest, it lets your readers follow up on things that strike them. Every professional organization has its own system of citation, which you should use in their publications. Merely using their format marks you as a member of their club, and makes their editors more likely to accept your work.
Richard A. Posner’s The Little Book of Plagiarism (New York: Pantheon, 2007) clarifies the legal and ethical issues.
[Care to share any problems with plagiarism?]