Tuesday, September 25, 2012


A few days ago while discussing term papers, I was a bit surprised when a student informed me that she could paraphrase an entire article and submit it as long as she cited the source.  My response was a rather dry, “Really?”  She looked at me and quietly informed me that she’d done so all the time and had never received a lower grade than an A.  I just smiled but determined that any term paper that I assign would require multiple sources.

But that student got me thinking about the definition of plagiarism.  I looked up the definition in the Merriam Webster dictionary and by definition the student was right, to plagiarize is “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own or use (another's production) without crediting the source.”  So as long as the source is credited, it’s not plagiarism.

As writers, we have to be constantly aware of plagiarism because the definition has relatively broad interpretation.  There is a thin line between inspiration and plagiarism, especially when it comes to ideas.  For each detective book I’ve read, I keep rereading the same scenes, same characters, just different names over and over again.  Is it formula writing or is it plagiarism?  Romance: story lines, ideas, characters, keep repeating themselves with every new romance.  Sometimes one books seem almost an exact replica of the other.  Plagiarism or inspiration?  How do we tell the difference?

In 1997 Janet Daily, a well known romance novelist admitted to plagiarizing Nora Roberts work in at least two books.  The books were pulled from the market, and Janet Daily settled a lawsuit.  More recently (2008) another well known romance writer, Cassie Edwards was accused of plagiarizing chunks of work without attributing the source.  When that happens, not only are these authors opened to lawsuits, but their original works become tainted as people question the originality.

At the same time I have written bits of fiction and after sending them to one of my trusted readers, they tell me they’d seen the story before, even directing me to the books.  The thing is, I had never read those stories.  Yet the overlap of ideas, similarities in characters and plots are similar to those books.  Is it plagiarism if I’ve never read the books, or just coincidence?  In other words, it is possible for a work to appear plagiarized, even if it is not.

Tonight I came across an online plagiarism checker.   I cut and paste chunks of this blog post into it and parts of it came up as possibly plagiarized.

So how can we avoid the possibility of accidentally plagiarizing another person’s work?


William Doonan said...

Interesting post, Jewel. As a teacher, I come across this issue regularly. A student looks up an answer on Wikipedia, changes a few words, and turns it is. But of course its still plagiarism. For fiction writers, the issue is murkier. If your protagonist is a rogue CIA agent who crosses the wrong people, and even his dog hates him now, you will inevitably walk some familiar paths. But that of course is not plagiarism.

Charles Gramlich said...

ideas get borrowed all the time, even basic conceptions of a scene, but I don't think of that as plagiarism. I think of plagiarism as having several levels. 1: word for word copying with an attempt to hide the source or that there even was a source. 2: word for word copying without quote marks even if a source is listed somewhere along the line. 3. paraphrasing without identifying a source. The student you mentioned was pretty clearly a good paraphraser, but I always require multiple sources in papers in my classes so she couldn't do well with only one source.

Jewel Amethyst said...

William, it is indeed murky when you come to fiction writing. As Charles said ideas are borrowed all the time. It is a lot harder to differentiate plagiarized work from borrowed ideas when dealing with fiction. Yet it occurs in fiction writing as well as other art forms simply because plagiarism is not restricted to words but also ideas.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Charles, I found it difficult to believe that the student could get away with paraphrasing and citing one source, because I expect students to pull information from multiple sources.

What I find strange when it comes to plagiarism in fiction, is that some of those accused had hundreds of titles to their names. Stylistic patterning is one thing, but outright copying from another is totally different.

Liane Spicer said...

Why on earth would anyone, least of all a well-known multi-published author, want to steal someone else's work? Laziness? Insanity? Someone held a gun to her head?

I don't think ideas can be plagiarized in fiction, though. Lots of people come up with the same or similar ideas, but no two people are going to develop the idea into identical stories. In fiction it's all about the execution, not the idea. How many detective stories are there with the identical plot?

I imagine it's difficult for a fiction writer to charge "You stole my story!" unless there was evidence of actual copying of text, rather than of an idea.

KeVin K. said...

The thing about fiction is ideas are easy. (Show of hands, how many writers have at least one friend who's offered to tell them a great idea for them to turn into a book so the two of you can share the profits?) Add to that the tropes and reader expectations of a genre story, whether romance, western, or noir detective, and it's easy to see how one story can look like another with neither writer even being aware of the other.

Charles pretty well defined plagiarism. I'd be tempted to have an intent qualifier - there are instances of unconsciously reproducing something read years ago - but that would cloud the issue too much. What was produced, not what was meant, is all we can evaluate.

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