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?