The Finer Points of Plagiarism

Wednesday, March 06, 2019
I debated for nearly a week with myself. Did I really want to talk about plagiarism? After all, I’m no expert, and I haven’t really thought much about plagiarism since I was in college, writing papers. But then I thought maybe you haven’t, either. And maybe we should revisit the topic, considering recent news.

Of course, if you have anything to do with writing romance fiction, then you’re probably aware of Nora Roberts and what she eventually addressed publicly. If you haven’t heard—or you don’t know the whole story—then zip over here to her blog post where she writes in detail about her experiences with being plagiarized. And no, that’s not a typo. Roberts has had multiple experiences of plagiarism!

So maybe you’re thinking, like me, plagiarism in romance novels? Because isn’t plagiarism more prevalent in the academic world? Or in media? College students or high school students, reporters and journalists, that’s who plagiarizes. It’s about leaving out citations, or not paraphrasing properly, or making up sources to support a story, right? But it turns out that fiction writers plagiarize, too. And not just in the romance genre. Kidlit writers plagiarize, mystery writers, too. Probably even soulful, baring-their-truth poets plagiarize. Whenever someone steals someone else’s work, that’s plagiarism.

Sometimes, it appears to be clear-cut. A thief can’t be any more overt than copying other people’s sentences or whole passages word-for-word and then signing their name to it. But other types of plagiarism (yep, there are five to ten different types, depending on who you ask) are a lot more difficult to assess because honestly, people don’t really understand the finer points of plagiarism. That probably explains the accidental plagiarism category, but sadly, accidentally or not, it’s still plagiarism.

So what’s a writer to do? Should you go out and copyright all the manuscripts that are gathering cyber dust in your laptop to protect your work against plagiarism? Nope, not necessary. As long as you have your work saved, you can always prove which words belong to you if they somehow show up in someone’s book.

If, on the other hand, you have reams and reams of hand-written stories, poems, and novels, you have a couple of choices: You can spend a lot of time scanning or taking digital pictures of your work. Or you can do nothing.

Because for most of us, plagiarism on a gut-wrenching scale like Nora Roberts experienced is unlikely. We don’t need to worry too much about scofflaw writers stealing our work—words or ideas--though I suspect with self-publishing becoming so accessible, plagiarism may become a huge problem in the future. Still, I don’t think we need to start adding lawyers to our writer’s toolbox just yet.

But it wouldn’t hurt to brush up on the finer points of plagiarism from a professional source now that you know it’s out there. And also because you don’t want to be an accidental plagiarist yourself. Like I said when I started on this topic, I’m a writer, not an expert. And like you, I’m just trying to make an honest living with words. Wouldn’t it be great if that were the case for all of us?

~Cathy C. Hall


Sioux Roslawski said...

Cathy--Working with students, I deal with plagiarism on a regular basis. Because of the technology today, it's so simple to check for it, and students are amazed (when they get caught) and clueless (when they're told they have to rewrite the piece).

Kathleen Cassen Mickelson said...

I'm an editor at Gyroscope Review, a quarterly contemporary poetry journal. Yes, poets plagiarize and we've declined submissions because we've found verses and even entire poems that showed up in Google searches with someone else's name as author. We Google everything and, because we have no way of knowing for sure whose work appeared first, have simply given the submitter links to what we've found so they can either clean up their act or figure out how someone else used their words. At any rate, it never fails to amaze me when I come across an instance like that. I'm grateful that we've not had many of those discoveries in our submissions, but sad that it is even an issue we have to consider.

Cathy C. Hall said...

Sioux, figuring out plagiarism starts so early now--and yet, students will keep on trying. I'm very glad you're in the trenches, working to teach (and enforce) integrity in their work!

And Kathleen, oh my word!I suppose we live in a society where everyone wants to be a success--at any cost--and so plagiarism thrives. It IS sad and I'm sorry you have to spend the time to check everything but I appreciate that you do!

Nicole Pyles said...

Yikes this reminds me of a time in college that we were exchanging essays and I read the essay of a girl who was a bit of a flake. How prolific she was! Later, because we had also emailed each other our essays, I googled sections and found them online. The next time in class, I told her how interesting her essay was and how I had to -ahem- GOOGLE parts of her essay to understand it. Needless to say, this girl dropped the class, never came back.

This sort of stuff makes me so much more paranoid about sharing stories on internet forums where people exchange work.

And poetry is plagiarized?? Unbelievable.

Margo Dill said...

I just read the Nora Roberts link you shared. That is unbelievable to me. Man, people have some b-----(rhymes with Halls. :) I guess money make people do unbelievable things.

Cathy C. Hall said...

I never worried much, Nicole, but now I guess I feel forewarned is forearmed!

And Margo, what I can't understand is plagiarizing from a well-known author--and a lawyer! But I guess if you're going to steal, steal from the best?

Yep, unbelievable. And very foolish in the world we live in today.

Linda O'Connell said...

Plagiarizing poetry? I've heard everything. I also heard you can't copyright an idea, and you shouldn't copy another writer. Simple tools for writers who abide by rules.

Renee Roberson said...

Wow! That Nora Roberts story has to be one of the craziest I've ever heard. I'm glad she stood up to the backlash (seriously, people called HER a bully?) and stuck to her guns! I caught my 6th-grader plagiarizing something a few years ago. She had left a google doc open on my computer and I saw she had written a story about how tigers got their stripes or something. I could tell it did not sound like her voice at all. Once I asked her about it, she said she found the language arts assignment hard and sort of "accidentally" took some material from a series of books she liked to read. I told her it was blatant plagiarism and she could not turn in the assignment. She already had turned it in. I said, "Fine. Tell your teacher you would like to re-submit the assignment. Period." She came up with something else, which I proofed, and then she told the teacher she needed to pull the other assignment. The teacher never asked why, and I think my daughter learned a valuable lesson that day. I hope!

Pat Wahler said...

The whole thing blows me away.

Between this and all the piracy sites I keep reading about, you have to wonder what the heck is going on?

Cathy C. Hall said...

I know your daughter learned a lesson, Renee, and it'll stick with her!

I know, Pat. As I said (on my personal website's blog), plagiarism's been around forever but there's a blatancy about it now, right? Kinda worrisome for sure!

Lisa Ricard Claro said...

Oh, yeah, that Nora piece blew up the RWA author forums. It's a HUGE problem. Nora, unlike so many others, has the money to pursue it legally---happy she is doing so. It's a volatile subject, to be sure.

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