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Plagiarism: A Horror Story

Stephanie Fisher

Posted by Stephanie Fisher on 10/27/16 9:30 AM

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As we creep closer to Halloween,  we decided to address one of the scariest words a content writer can hear: plagiarism. AHHHHHHH!!! It strikes fear into the hearts of writers everywhere. Plagiarism has destroyed careers, discredited highly respected writers, and jeopardized the reputations of publications that have been in business for decades. 

But what, precisely, does plagiarism mean? And how can it affect you as a marketing professional? 

What is the Definition of Plagiarism?

We all understand that it's wrong to steal. And that's what plagiarism is—stealing. You're stealing someone else's work and passing it off as your own. Whether you're in a high school English class or a journalist at The New York Times, this is unacceptable. There are several different forms of plagiarism—let's look at them now. 

  • Direct Plagiarism—This is the form that you probably think of when you hear the word "plagiarism". It means that you take another writer's work word for word and pass it off as your own without crediting him or her.

    In 2003, The New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was revealed to have directly plagiarized dozens of times over the course of six months. The Times, struggling to regain their credibility, detailed the instances of his falsifications in this fascinating (and very, very long) piece.  

  • Mosaic Plagiarism—If you utilize phrases from a source and don't attach quotation marks, or if you conjure up synonyms that mirror the author's language while keeping the structure and meaning, you're still plagiarizing. 

    A recent example of mosaic plagiarism occurred at the 2016 Republican National Convention—Melania Trump's speech was later discovered to have lifted nearly a whole paragraph of a Michelle Obama speech from 2008. 

  • Self Plagiarism—Taking work that you've used elsewhere before and submitting it as new, original work without noting that the work was published before is also a form of plagiarism, even if you generated the content yourself.  

    The most famous instance of self plagiarism in recent history is that of Jonah Lehrer, a science journalist who had published three  books and was recently hired to write full-time for The New Yorker. After it was discovered that he had not only used previously published work without citation, but he had fabricated quotes from thin air, he resigned amid a flurry of accusations. He's published another book recently, but his credibility is so damaged that he's struggling to regain his footing in the literary community. 

  • Accidental Plagiarism—Sure, you didn't INTEND to plagiarize, but if you don't cite your sources, or if you paraphrase without giving your source credit, it's plagiarism. 

Truth or Consequences

Yes, plagiarizing will discredit you in the eyes of your reader, but is that all? Are there other ramifications? Of course there are. It's not just unethical, it's also illegal to plagiarize. 

Failure to cite a source is a violation of copyright law. The author of the content you've used could file a civil lawsuit, and it's likely that they would win. Not only would you have to pay steep legal fees, but you'd be liable for monetary damages.  

You've probably heard about copyright infringement cases in the music world; a few years ago, Robin Thicke  and Pharrell Williams were sued by the family of deceased musician Marvin Gaye. The Gaye family asserted that Thicke's song "Blurred Lines" contained music stolen from Gaye's 1977 hit song, "Got to Give It Up." Additionally, the family claimed, Thicke stole music from Gaye's song "After the Dance" to pad his song "Love After War." After the case went to trial, a jury awarded Gaye's family $7.3 million, making this the highest judgment ever awarded in a copyright infringement case.  

If the fear of a lawsuit isn't sufficient to stave off plagiarism, what about the possibility that you'll never be able to write for a living again? Consider Jayson Blair. His once-bright career was effectively ruined after it was discovered that he had been plagiarizing his stories a the New York Times. He wrote a book in 2004 entitled "Burning Down My Master's House: My Life at the New York Times," which sold poorly. Now, the former journalist is working as a life coach. The career that he worked to build crumbled under the weight of plagiarism; no news entity could hire him for fear that his reputation would tarnish their credibility. 

Get the Common Sense Guide to Avoid Copyright Infringement on the Web

Authenticity is Key

While we have your attention, let's discuss a different, but no less harmful, type of fraud: generating false reviews. 

It's tempting to create positive reviews from thin air, particularly when your business is still finding its feet. Or, you might consider paying a contractor a small fee to write something nice. Either way, it's considered fraud, and it can cost you big time. 

Review sites like Yelp or Google Places have language in their terms of service that implicitly forbids writing fraudulent reviews.  Unfortunately, some small businesses are so eager to gain positive exposure that they're willing to circumvent the law by hiring third parties to write fake positive reviews.  We get it— an extra star on Yelp can be a major boost to a new business. However, if you think that a company as big as Yelp won't pay attention to a false review, you might be wrong.

In 2003 the New York State Attorney General's office undertook a yearlong sting operation in hopes of catching businesses that write false reviews for small businesses in exchange for cash.  "Operation Clean Turf"  ended up netting 19 businesses, which were fined by the AG's office; these companies were forced to pay more than $350,000 in fines. 

Or, look at the case of Humankind Design Ltd., a Texas-based company that was accused by auto shopping website Edmunds.com of "registering nearly 2200 fake member accounts on Edmunds' website to post positive but bogus ratings and reviews," which is a violation of Edmunds' terms of service. Humankind eventually settled with Edmunds, agreeing to shut down the company immediately as well as give Edmunds.com data about all the accounts registered by Humankind and the reviews submitted there. Humankind also had to pay Edmunds.com's accrued legal fees. 

Prevent Plagiarism

Are you spooked? Good—that means you're taking this issue seriously! If you're concerned about avoiding plagiarism, perhaps you should consider hiring a professional content developer.  Here are some benefits to bringing a pro on board. 

  • Original Content Takes Time—If you're like most marketers, the thought of generating the amount of content required to effectively incorporate digital marketing is a little bit panic-inducing. The whole backbone of digital marketing is content, so you want it done well. Enter the content developer. Yes, it's more time-consuming to generate completely unique content, but a professional can do it faster than you can, and they can probably do it better. Plus, while they're banging away on their laptop, you can focus on building your business in other ways. Win! 

  • Content Writers Provide Polish—Like we said, content is vital to digital marketing, so you want yours to sparkle. You and your business will look good when you've got a professional content developer in your corner. 

  • Communication is Key—If your content isn't communicating your message properly, it doesn't look good for you or your brand. A content developer can work with you to create a message that is congruent with your brand, interesting to your clients, and engaging for anyone who should stumble across your site. Are you confident that you can hit all of these points on your own? If you're not, maybe you should hire a writer. 

  • Writers are Synthesizers—This is particularly useful if you're in a really technical line of work. A good writer can take a great deal of dense information and turn it into an easily-understood piece of content that will not just educate potential clients but turn them into customers. Additionally, a professional content writer can incorporate additional research into their work, ensuring that you're reaching potential clients from a lot of different angles. 

  • Share, Please—Everyone knows that social media is a major part of doing business these days; there's nothing better for generating "likes" and "shares" than some solid, well-written content. Not only will your blog numbers climb, but your social media platforms will benefit as well. 

Bottom line: plagiarism is bad, and it can damage your reputation as well as your wallet. If you're concerned about creating original content, but you're not sure if you've got what it takes, we can help

Get the Common Sense Guide to Avoid Copyright Infringement on the Web

Topics: content, digital marketing, copyright

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