Your Work, Someone Else’s Portfolio

My wife works in human resources. Part of her job is to coordinate with with outside printers for materials that are targeted at the company’s employees. Though her business does a lot of printing in-house, their machines are specialized and can not handle a lot of jobs, especially smaller press runs.

Earlier this week, she was meeting a new printer and working with them on their first assignment for her company. They brought her a stack of “samples” of the company’s work. She tore through it, admiring the print quality when she came across something odd, a print job from her own company, one that she knew had been done internally just a few months before.

My wife, ever conscious of these issues, was unsure how to handle it. There was some uncertainty if the lie was intentional, the sample packet was hastily gathered from one of the designer’s desk, and nothing else seemed amiss, but it bothered her nonetheless.

She decided to go ahead and give them the job, a small one that needed to be done quickly, but is going to investigate the matter more later.

But this offline case highlights a very serious problem on the Web, portfolio plagiarism. Web designers, authors, photographers and others who make a living on the Web rely on their portfolio to get new clients. Sadly, many take shortcuts when building up their portfolio, often at the expense of legitimate artists.

However, stopping this kind of plagiarism is not easy and requires more than just vigilance in looking for content theft, it requires awareness and vigilance of employers as well.

Bad Business

It’s simple enough to do. Photographers can print out a few pictures from the Web, being sure to get a high-resolution copy, put them in their portfolio and wow potential employers. Web designers, can list a few Web sites they admire and claim to have developed them. Finally, for writers and journalists, it is as simple as printing out works that they like and affixing their name.

Like other forms of resume fraud, such as adding fake degrees or exaggerating duties, portfolio plagiarism is a way to artificially inflate your skills in a bid to get a job. Sadly, it is also very difficult to detect and is very rarely caught.

The problem is that, unlike references and employment history, portfolio items are very rarely checked for accuracy. Employers generally don’t have access to originals in a physical portfolio and items in an electronic one are almost never investigated.

An unethical job seeker can claim whatever content they want as their own, within reason, with little fear of getting caught. Worse still, this kind of plagiarism is almost impossible for the victim to detect, since, in many cases, there is no trail back to the plagiarist.

Unfortunately, this kind of plagiarism can be very damaging to its victims, often hitting them where it hurts the most, their very livelihood.

Unemployment Claims

The problem with all of this is that the plagiarist is often competing with their victim for the same or similar jobs. Even worse, employers and HR directors talk to one another regularly and, if an image or any other work gets passed around under too many identities, it is bound, at some point, to be realized.

The question is who, the victim, the plagiarist or both, will come under suspicion. If an employer sees a work come across his or her desk multiple times, they are likely to have the strongest suspicions about whoever came last, assuming, often falsely that the first person to submit it as a sample is the real creator.

The flaw in this logic is that most people produce their best works for a job. If they are employed, they aren’t looking to get hired. Thus, they often have months or years before their contract expires or the job ends and they are submitting their own work as a portfolio piece. Even Web designers and others who are constantly seeking new clients often wait weeks or months before updating their portfolio. However, their work is available for a job-hungry plagiarist from the moment it goes live.

Sadly, this type of plagiarism is fairly common, as we discussed on this site previously, and makes up one of the five major kinds of plagiarism. That makes it a very serious concern for anyone who relies upon their portfolio or their past work for employment.

However, stopping this kind of plagiarism is very difficult and requires action on both the part of the content creator and the employer looking to hire a potential employee or contractor.

Still, it is not impossible, as long as both are willing to take a few reasonable steps.

Prevention

Since portfolio plagiarism is so difficult to detect and stop, it requires that the content creator put more thought into it on the frontend, working more to prevent it.

Consider the following steps:

  1. Mark All Work: All images, especially high resolution ones that can be printed, should be affixed with a visible mark. Web sites need to have a copyright footer and an “about” page. Though text can not be easily marked, printable copies should have notices affixed to them to provide at least some deterrent.
  2. Check Referral Links: Since many portfolio plagiarists will get lazy with their online portfolios and just link to their victims, it is important to keep on top of incoming links and make sure that nothing seems amiss.
  3. Use Your Real Name: The anonymity of the Web is one of the things that makes this kind of plagiarism so easy. When possible and practical, use your real name.Though I use pen names on my other sites, nothing that I submit as part of my portfolio has a pseudonym. If an employer wants to see my other work, I will show them, but I don’t make a big deal about sites not bearing my name.

Employers, however, also have a responsibility and a vested interest in this. Not only is it ethical to make sure your employees are honest, but a plagiarist employee is not going to have the skills you desire. It is to the employers benefit to ensure that they hire the highest-quality employees possible and a padded portfolio can hinder that greatly.

However, there are steps that they can take.

  1. Investigate the Portfolio: Take a few moments before hiring and employee to examine the portfolio work, request copies if necessary. Check and see if their work matches their job experience, search the Web for it and see if it appears to belong to someone else. It isn’t necessary to check every work, a random sampling should suffice.
  2. Ask Questions: I can not count the number of times I’ve been in a job interview and I’ve blazed through my portfolio in under ten minutes without as much as a single question from the interviewer. Ask questions, get details, find out how a work was created, get specific experience. A plagiarist will usually trip up on such questions.
  3. Follow Your Gut: If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Follow up on any suspicions you have, check for yourself and ask questions as needed. Generally speaking, when an employee is found to have plagiarized, their employers had a feeling something was wrong but didn’t follow up.

Of course, this type of scrutiny is not necessary for absolutely every candidate for a job, just the ones that are serious contenders for the position. Though such checks would not take a considerable amount of time, especially when compared to other follow ups that are a part of the hiring process, they are often overlooked in the haste of the hiring process.

Conclusions

This type of plagiarism is likely one of the most common types of plagiarism that takes place, and one of the most damaging. Fueled by desperate job seekers looking for work and employers wanting to speed through the hiring process, this type of abuse constant a regular problem that is under-reported and rarely stopped.

However, if content creators and employers alike take a few simple precautions, the problem can be reduced significantly.

Since it is in everyone’s best interest that this type of plagiarism not go unchecked, it makes sense for content creators and employers to work together to ensure the honesty of works submitted as part of a portfolio.

Simply put, there is simply too much at stake, for both the victim and the employer, to not take some basic precautions.

There might not be a way to stop it completely, but there are ways to make it much more difficult and less likely to take place.

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