Episode 39: What’s Yours is Mine

Once upon a time, borrowing someone’s ideas—and even the exact words—was considered a rather standard form of scholarship. Back then, there was also no easy way to compare who had what idea and when (the horrors of life before Google).

Now days, professors check papers via the web to see if anything has been ripped off, careers can be ruined when copying is found out, and lawsuits fly at the tap of a keyboard. The so-called Information Age has changed the way that we perceive and deal with plagiarism. There’s just one problem: plagiarism seems to have a rather fuzzy definition.

I’m not going to give you a concrete definition either. There are too many variables and contexts to say what is legal in each one. But I will give you some guidelines to consider when you’re working on your own projects.

  • Play it safe and give a shout out. If you borrow an idea or quote something, at least provide a way for the reader to find the original (whether a formal citation or simply a link). The medium and the context will determine the proper way to give credit, but even if it’s a small aspect of the source, cite it anyway. Your editor may determine that something isn’t needed, but it’s always better to have unnecessary citations removed than to miss some. “Common knowledge” isn’t always a defensible excuse.
  • Pay attention to copyrights. With most books and other printed sources, you can be sure that the material is copyrighted, the exception being old materials where the copyright has lapsed (even there, it’s best to give credit). Websites can be a bit trickier, but you should be able to find some sort of copyright statement. I’ve got one from Creative Commons that lists stipulations, for example. You can quote big chunks of web material (unless the site asks you not to), and some sites offer free material to use anywhere. However, it’s best never to quote more than a few paragraphs of copyrighted material because it can change when the hosting site decides. Whatever the case, just make sure that it’s clear where it came from.
  • Don’t count words. I’ve seen a few definitions of plagiarism that depend upon word counts. “If you quote more than x words, then you have to cite the source.” If you have a book that says that, rip that page out. It’s not about the number of words; it’s about the intent. When you borrow an idea, you have a duty as a writer to tell where it came from. Informal writing has looser rules, of course, but if what you’re writing is going to be published somewhere, you should hold yourself to high standards.
  • Learn to Fisk with finesse. If you are quoting a web or print article to respond to it point by point (sometimes called Fisking), then you have the right to do so—as long as you give a link to the original.

What are some of the rules you’ve learned for avoiding plagiarism?


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