Plagiarism on the internet
Is Someone Plagiarizing Your Work?
7th December 2001
An essential overview of a topic that every creator of content should familiarize themselves with.
About two weeks ago I received an article submission that immediately attracted my attention. The title was identical to the title of an article I wrote and which was published in ‘WebProNews’ in May 1999.
«Probably just a coincidence», I thought to myself, and kept reading. But the first paragraph stopped me in my tracks. It was quite clearly plagiarized from my article. As I kept reading I recognized sentence after sentence that had been lifted from my article and then modified slightly.
The whole article was plagiarized. I could hardly believe it. As the English say, I was ‘gob-smacked’.
What Is Plagiarism?
‘Plagiarism’ comes from the Latin word ‘plagiarius’, a kidnapper. Here are two dictionary definitions of plagiarism:
‘[to] take (the work or idea of someone else) and pass it off as one’s own’
(Concise Oxford Dictionary, Third Edition, 1999).
‘to appropriate ideas, passages etc. from another work or author’
(Collins Dictionary of the English Language, ed. P. Hanks 1979).
Plagiarism can be done in many ways, but the most common technique is to paraphrase someone else’s words.
Here’s an example:
«And if you’ve matched the ezine to the product you’re selling, you’ve reached your target audience.»
«If you have correctly matched the ezine or newsletter to the product you’re selling, then you will have reached your target audience.»
As you can see, the plagiarist has simply taken the original and then replaced the phrase ‘you’ve matched’ with the phrase ‘you have correctly matched’, inserted the words ‘or newsletter’, and replaced the word ‘you’ve’ with the words ‘then you will have’.
Part of the reason that plagiarism is so rampant on the Internet is that many people genuinely believe that it’s okay to take someone else’s writing, make a few changes, and then present it as their own.
Is Plagiarism a Crime?
As far as I know plagiarism is not a crime in most countries, and this is probably because plagiarism is so difficult to define. How many words does a plagiarist have to substitute and rearrange before the copied version ceases to be a copy of the original?
This is why plagiarism is much more difficult to deal with than copyright theft. A copyright thief simply steals your work, lock-stock-and-barrel. A plagiarist steals your work and disguises it as their own.
But while plagiarism may not be a crime, it is heavily sanctioned in professions that are based on the written word. I know of one professor of sociology who lost his job almost overnight because he plagiarized someone else’s work. And in journalism the consequences of being exposed as a plagiarist would be the same.
Unfortunately, internet plagiarism is flourishing. There’s now a whole industry that supplies college students with ‘model’ term papers for the purpose of plagiarism.
But the plagiarism industry has spawned another industry: websites and software designed to detect plagiarism. One such software was developed by turnitin.com (www.turnitin.com) and plagiarism.org (www.plagiarism.org).
This is how it works: the software makes a ‘digital fingerprint’ of a submitted document using an elaborate set of algorithms. That fingerprint is then checked against a database that contains over 1 billion publicly-available web pages. Plagiarism.org then produces an ‘originality report’ that gives the user an index of how original the submitted paper was, and whether it falls above or below the ‘plagiarism threshold’.
This software, however — while an excellent tool for college professors — probably wouldn’t help writers find out if their work has been plagiarized.
What Can You Do About It?
The Internet is so vast, chances are you wouldn’t know if someone had plagiarized your work. I only discovered that my work had been plagiarized because the ‘author’ sent his plagiarized article to me for publication in my own newsletter.
But if you do discover that someone has plagiarized one of your articles, you could do what I did.
I immediately contacted the author of the ‘article’ and requested that he email everyone to whom he had sent the article, explaining that it was plagiarized, and that they should on no account publish it. I added that if he did not withdraw the article from circulation I would contact his web host and the moderators of any lists that distributed the article.
The author replied within a few hours and admitted that the similarity between the 2 articles was «VERY uncanny». He said he had no idea «how they could be so similar». But after a few emails, he did withdraw the article.
In a way, it’s a compliment when someone plagiarizes your work: it means you’re writing good stuff. But that’s little consolation. If you make your living from writing on the Internet, plagiarism could be the greatest threat to your livelihood.