Journalism students take entire courses on ethics, and a big portion of it has to do with plagiarism. Still, there are cases every year in which it’s discovered that trained, professional, and reputable reporters are guilty of plagiarizing.
Content marketers on the other hand, haven’t necessarily been trained in all of the intricacies of plagiarism, and trust us – it goes way beyond just cutting and pasting entire articles. There are quite a few gray areas to be aware of, especially in our world of daily blog deadlines in which everything online seems like it’s fair game to use.
Here’s a journalist’s crash course on plagiarism, and how to avoid getting busted for stealing the words and ideas of others.
What it is
Plagiarism is essentially lifting someone else’s copy or overall message, and not attributing it to them. Everyone hopefully knows that you can’t cut and paste someone’s article, slap your byline on it, and call it a day. But what about if you copy, paste, and rearrange the sentence structure?
It sounds like it’s not as bad an infraction, but really, it’s not all that different. Changing a few words around is a practice known as “patchwriting,” which is described in detail by Poynter.org. That’s not to say you can’t do some reading and research to help you come up with topic ideas, or to educate yourself about an issue. However, if you’re turning someone’s “10 ways to be a better writer” article into “10 tips to make your writing great,” and just reordering and tweaking the tips, that’s plagiarism.
Also not allowed is what Poynter calls “quote lifting,” in which you incorporate a quote that was published elsewhere into your article, but make it seem like you were given it first hand by not mentioning the original source. (Note: Even though I wasn’t quoting anything in these paragraphs, I made sure you knew that I was attributing these ideas to Poynter since that was my source for this concept, and I drew my ideas directly from it. BOOM.)
What it isn’t
If you’ve ever rounded up the thoughts of experts or commentary from users on your social media sites into an article, or used tools like Storify, you’ve curated content. While it might seem that you’re lifting the words/ideas/tweets of others, as long as you identify who said what and where they said it, you’re in the clear. Content curation is a great way to aggregate what others are saying about a particular issue, and to facilitate a larger conversation. It definitely has some value, and as long as the bulk of your content library is your own original content, you can keep on curating worry-free.
Another area that creates some confusion is content licensing. On many sites – including NewsCred.com – you’ll see bylined articles that originally appeared in other publications or sites. What you might not realize is that behind the scenes, the two companies worked together and created a licensing agreement, which gives one site permission to reprint certain articles that are supplied by the content creator. The original sources of these articles are clearly identified, and all parties have agreed to how the content will be used, therefore, this is not plagiarism.
How to avoid plagiarism pitfalls
When in doubt, attribute. Again, even if you’re paraphrasing what someone else said, you should give that person credit. If you found it online, link back to the article or site. Finally, if you use something word for word, it should go inside quotation marks, and unless it was given directly to you via an interview, you should say where the quote originally appeared or was said (i.e.: “said Mike White in a NewsCred.com article,” or “said Lisa Smith during her speech at NewsCred’s headquarters on May 1st.”).
Don’t self-plagiarize. That sounds weird, right? But it does happen – just ask disgraced journalist Jonah Lehrer. If you’re being asked to write original content for your company or as a guest post on another site, it must be original. Using something you wrote a few years ago is not being original.
As more and more article research takes place online, and more non-journalists enter the content arena, plagiarism – accidental or not – will increase. As you’re writing, take the time to really think about how the audience is perceiving the information you’re giving them, and make sure it reflects the truth. If you’re not sure, it’s always better to ask than to get tangled up in accusations of plagiarism.
This article originally appeared on The Bulletin, NewsCred’s hub for all things content marketing.