So I got plagiarized recently.
It was the first time for me…that I know about. I did a quick informal survey of some other journalists and writers, and a bunch of them told me that they’ve had their work stolen before, too. I guess it was inevitable. If you write long enough–and decently enough, I like to think–eventually someone is going to steal your words and try to pass them off as their own.
Of course, when I discovered the plagiarism, I was still outraged. I was shocked, SHOCKED!, I tell you. How dare someone steal my words! How dare they try to pass that story off as their own! How dare they be stupid enough to include their byline above my work where a quick Google search could uncover it! How dare they tweet about their article–my article!–on Twitter!
After I fumed and ranted for awhile, I calmed down a little bit and began to think about the situation a little more rationally. My guess is that the person who stole my work was just being lazy, not malevolent. A quick check into the thief’s background turned up only a little information, but from what I could glean, s/he is a blogger, but not a professional journalist. And it wasn’t like s/he was making stuff up and passing it off as fact, a la Jayson Blair. The article was published on the website for a niche publication, and s/he was probably gambling that no one read my publication and his/her publication and would notice the problem. In fact, given the form in which the stolen story was published, s/he may not have even thought that what they were doing was actual plagiarism.
But it was.
The article was a shortened version of an article that I wrote on a health care topic. The “writer” opened the story with a fairly generic sentence that wasn’t mine, which is fine, but then s/he proceeded to quote two direct quotes from an interview that I had conducted with a source on the phone. Then after the second quote, s/he said that the person had said such things “in a press release.” Um, no. No, he hadn’t. He had said them to me over the phone at 2 p.m. a few days earlier. I checked with his professional organization to make sure he hadn’t issued a press release with those exact quotes in them after the fact. Nope. He hadn’t. The rest of the article was a summary of what I’d written, with a few direct phrases and some others that were more or less mine, but rearranged or slightly shortened.
Plagiarism.org calls plagiarism “an act of fraud.” (See how I attributed that quote there? Not plagiarism. Attribution. Attribution good. Plagiarism bad.) The website notes that Merriam-Webster defines plagiarism as stealing or passing off the ideas or words of another as one’s own, as using (another’s production) without crediting the source, as committing literary theft, as presenting as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source. So if you steal my story and just switch around a few words here and there so it doesn’t read exactly word for word, it’s still stealing. Not (properly) attributing quotes that someone else got is still stealing.
So the story that ripped off my story is an example of stealing.
The Society of Professional Journalists, which I’ve belonged to for many years now, has a voluntary code of ethics embraced by most professional journalists. One of the tenets that is spelled out the most clearly is this one: “Never plagiarize.” Never. Plagiarize. End of story. It is not okay to plagiarize. Not even a little bit.
Actually, I’m surprised that anyone still tries to get away with plagiarism these days. Teachers have services like Turnitin.com to suss out who’s stealing the info that appears in their term papers. Editors can use LexisNexis. The rest of us have Google. It’s not that hard to poke around and turn things up. But then again, I’m a professionally trained journalist who went to J-school and studied ethics and all that. I know this stuff. Some of those amateur writers out there may not even be fully aware of the intricacies of plagiarism or the implications and repercussions. They may truly not realize that taking another’s piece of work and boiling it down, borrowing a couple of quotes, and summing it up is still not acceptable.
But it’s not. So take note, folks, if you’re a little unclear on plagiarism. Read the SPJ Code of Ethics. And when in doubt about using someone else’s material, attribute. Attribute, attribute, attribute.
Thank you. (And end of public service announcement. And lecture.)