Plagiarism is larceny, a writer’s theft of someone else’s words and claiming them as his or her own, along with the facts, thoughts and ideas they convey. In this digital age, stealing words is simply a matter of clicking a mouse, and presto! Huge blocks of verbiage may be copied and pasted into anything a larcenous writer may be writing.
With the World Wide Web an open territory for predatory plagiarists, the practice is now more widespread than ever before. Major appropriators of other people’s writing include bloggers, students, college applicants and researchers publishing in respected medical and technological journals—all of whom have taken the words of others and passed them off as their own.
Even high-profile professional journalists, newspaper columnists and best-selling authors have been accused of plagiarism; we emphasize the word accused, rather than convicted.
Among big name writers recently charged with plagiarism is Time magazine columnist and CNN broadcast pundit Fareed Zakaria. He also had a stand-alone column in The Washington Post.
Zakaria was temporarily suspended from these positions, pending an investigation and an explanation after he acknowledged that he used the words of another writer in a column he wrote. Zakaria characterized his plagiarism as a “terrible mistake…a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault.”
The source of Zakaria’s purloined words was an article written in the New Yorker by historian Jill Lepore on gun control laws. Although Zakaria changed a few words in his plagiarized passages, the language was almost identical. Cam Edwards of NRANewss.com first discovered the plagiarism.
Time’s reaction was swift and emphatic. A spokesperson for the publication said: “TIME takes any accusation of plagiarism by any of our journalists very seriously, and we will carefully examine the facts before saying anything else on the matter.”
Equally as severe regarding Zakaria’s plagiarism was the statement from the editorial page director of The Washington Post, Fred Hiatt. He said “Fareed Zakaria is a valued contributor. We’ve never had any reason to doubt the integrity of his work for us. Given his acknowledgement today [his admission of plagiarism], we intend to review his work with him.”
Time suspended Zakaria, saying in a statement:
“Time accepts Fareed’s apology, but what he did violates our own standards for our columnists, which is that their work must not only be factual but original; their views must not only be their own but their words as well. As a result, we are suspending Fareed’s column for a month, pending further review.”
Despite his admission of guilt, Zakaria has resumed writing for Time and is currently back at CNN.
Another case of plagiarism, this one accidental or inadvertent, according to the author, involves best-selling historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Long plagiarized passages appeared in Goodwin’s book, “The Fitzgerald and the Kennedys,” published in 1987.
Goodwin said she accidentally confused her own notes with notes that she took from other printed sources. In subsequent editions of the book, attribution is given to the outside sources.
Goodwin is also the author of “Lincoln: A Team of Rivals,” a book that forms the basis of Steven Spielberg’s highly successful recent film, “Lincoln.” Her previous plagiarism, accidental as she claimed, apparently has not diminished her popularity with readers or movie-goers.
In 1998, veteran newspaper columnist Mike Barnicle resigned from his job at the Boston Globe after 25 years when accusations of plagiarism were leveled against him. Two of his columns were questioned, one of which allegedly ran George Carlin jokes without attribution.
Barnicle’s editor reinstated the columnist after other journalists and readers of the Globe clamored for his rehiring. Barnicle admitted he might have been “sloppy and lazy” in writing the columns in question, but denied that he was a plagiarist. Barnicle’s punishment was a two-month suspension without pay. The Barnicle case is mentioned because it attracted national attention.
Despite these earlier professional problems, today Barnicle is a regular contributor to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program, and writes for Time, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Esquire and many other print and online publications, according to Barnicle’s Website.
What each of the above cases illustrates is that plagiarism, deliberate or accidental, is a common occurrence, even involving high-profile publications. The cases further illustrate that often the penalties for plagiarism are either moderate or almost non-existent.
But not every use by one author of another author’s words constitutes a case of plagiarism. Authors may quote one another under provisions of the copyright law called fair use. Proper attribution of the borrowed quotes must be made, and a limited amount of words may be used.
Extensive “borrowing” of another author’s words, however, could be construed as copyright infringement and actionable in a court of law, with monetary and compensatory damages assessed against the offender.
As plagiarism is made easier in the digital world, how can editors guard against it beyond trusting in the integrity and professionalism of the writers who write for them?
There are several plagiarism detectors available online. These software applications scan the targeted piece of writing for indications of plagiarism and flag the questionable material.
In a typical application process, the document to be scanned is uploaded into the plagiarism detector’s system. The detector then searches through the Internet in books, periodicals, other print sources, comparing the target document with the acquired documents. Results of the scan are then submitted to the client who made the request for a plagiarism search.
Because plagiarism occurs with relative frequency in college-level papers, academic and scholarly writing, detectors have been increasingly used to ferret out cheaters in these areas.
Plagiarism may not seem to be much of a problem to some observers and they may think that it does not warrant punishment. Those who do should consider this: Students who steal words for their college admission essays have committed a crime against truth, and a crime against the institution of higher learning which is considering their admission.
Plagiarizing scholars similarly commit a crime against truth, and in cases where practical matters apply, they may also be hurting the reputations of the institutions for which they write.
Marc Davis has been an independent journalist for more than twenty years. His reporting-writing has been published by Advertising Age, AOL, The Chicago Tribune, Forbes Online Media, The Journal of the American Bar Association, Encyclopedia Britannica, The John Marshal Law School Magazine, and numerous other national print and online media. He is also a published novelist and the author of several children’s books. His latest novel, Bottom Line, will be published in June 2013, by The Permanent Press, N.Y.