‘Thou Shall Not Plagiarize’ – The Cardinal Sin of Writing

If we, in the book publishing industry, could adapt a Bible quotation that is emblematic of one of our greatest bugbears, then it would probably be Leviticus 9:11 –

“Thou shall not steal another person’s wording or ideas.”

Although it is unlikely that the Levites of long ago had the 21st century publishing industry in mind when that particular verse was appropriated, the sentiments are ones that book editors today are at pains to emphasize to writers – and which they privately gripe about in, admittedly, somewhat less theistic terms.

plagiarism consequencesThe Internet provides us with an immeasurable source of information and knowledge. In fact, today, it is the foremost method by which we share ideas and opinions, and unlike any other era in human history, the dissemination of our thoughts is now wide-spread, borderless, and instant. However, it is no secret that such ease of access to information – that, previous to the online age was largely the jurisdiction of (shock, horror!) books and encyclopaedias – frequently gives rise to instances of incorrectly used or improperly cited material by authors. In particular, that wonderful, seductive little tool known as “copy and paste” has much to answer for with regard to the suffering of modern day book editors, whose raison d’etre is the preservation of the values and integrities of the literary world, one new manuscript at a time.

Admittedly, while the above “mission statement” might be a touch hyperbolic, the issue of Internet plagiarism is nonetheless a significant one. Passing off the work of others as one’s own, carries with it not only the very real danger of legal trouble, but the possibility of severely undermining the integrity and reputation of the plagiarizing author. Moreover, it is often the case that when a book editor encounters a manuscript that contains plagiarized material, that editor will – subconsciously or otherwise – pass negative judgement on that work. Pleading ignorance regarding plagiarism is not an excuse either; it is expected that all writers who are committed to originality, self-development, and the achievement of high-standards are fully aware of the importance of transparency and authenticity.

The workload of a book editor is at the best of times heavy, and at the worst of times all-consuming; that is not a cause for griping, of course. Indeed, for those of us with a love of books, the opportunity to immerse one’s self day-to-day in the rewarding and unpredictable world of newly-written ideas is an often-acknowledged blessing. That said, the discovery of plagiarism – particularly when it is deemed to have been intentional – will very often give rise to an impulsive twinge of annoyance within an editor.

And let it be stated, loud and clear, that book editors generally are seasoned pros when it comes to sniffing out falsely attributed, unacknowledged, or – let’s not beat around the bush – stolen ideas or text. The tiniest, most subtle deviation in the flow of a narrative, a misplaced comma, or an obtrusive word-use can trigger a big, red, screaming “PLAGIARISM ALERT” siren in the mind of an editor.

In the cases of emerging authors, in particular, eager for their work to make an impression on publishing houses, the discovery of plagiarized material within a manuscript will only be met with disapproval by a would-be publisher or an editor. Even if the instance of plagiarism in a manuscript is slight or unintentional, the authenticity of the work in its entirety may very well be called into question. And let’s be frank, once the seed of doubt as to the conscientiousness, or even trustworthiness, of an author is sown, the working relationship between the writer and publisher may encounter difficulties going forward.
So, with all of this in mind, how best can authors insure that they do not fall into the plagiarism pit?

Original Ideas. While the Internet is indeed a friend and an invaluable resource for research and information, the ideas that an author prints on paper should, for the most part, be their own original thought. The narrative itself should be unique to the author, and should not be taken from the words of others, unless directly quoted or paraphrased alongside clear acknowledgement of the original author.

Cite Sources. As professional editors, we understand that properly formatting a reference used from another source (book, magazine, article, interview , etc) can be tricky because the rules not only change sometimes, but there is not even one main style guide to follow, which can depend on your industry (i.e. media uses AP style) or topic (i.e. college papers will often require APA). There is MLA, AP, APA, Chicago and so forth that all provide style guidelines on how to cite sources.  This can seem intimidating and confusing to writers with limited or no experience in using citations. (This is also one significant reason why you hire professional editors.) No matter the style guideline, typically the same basic info is always required in citing a source: author name, publication, date published.

Paraphrasing Can’t Save You. Just because you have paraphrased or summarized someone else’s material doesn’t mean you don’t have to make reference to, or cite, the original source. Yes, paraphrasing is a good way to avoid plagiarism, but if you paraphrase using original words or concepts, you must give credit to the source, or creator, of the material.

Quote It. We find that one of easiest, most effective means to avoid plagiarism is to quote the original source directly, using quotation marks to enclose the entire statement. When a quote is more than 40 words or four lines of text, the writer should use a block quote style (indented without quotation marks).

self-plagairismCite Yourself. One tricky form of plagiarism is when you do it to yourself, which means that you (the writer) use material that you already published or presented without stating that the work had previously been used. College students, for instance, may be tempted to use work they submitted previously in a new paper. Authors may likewise use material from a previous book in a new book. No matter who said it first, including you, the material should be cited as to when (date) and how (article, book, etc) it had been used.

There are Limits. If a writer chooses to quote from the work of another, then any quoted text  is restricted under the “Fair Use” rule.  Just because you give another source credit, doesn’t mean you can use it without permission. Some guidelines suggest that quoted material be restricted to under 300 words or so and correctly cited; any more than that amount results in an obligation to seek permission from the original author to use his or her material. However, you should limit using material from another source both qualitatively as well as quantitatively. In other words, don’t use too much and don’t use the “heart of the work,” or main point(s), of another person’s material.

The avoidance of plagiarism is not an onerous undertaking and, essentially, it is a competency that all good writers should be cognisant of and endeavour towards. The Canadian artist, Bonnie Hamlin, wrote that “Gathering your own reference materials, sketches and using your own imagination is going to help you grow as an artist far more than stealing someone else’s work.” Any aspiring writer who is serious about their craft would do well to be mindful of such sentiments.


Cormac Lambe, editor


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