For every master plagiarist who manages to skate by for years and grow a successful site or career off of their deed, there’s probably dozens of idiot plagiarists who get caught quickly and are forced to face the consequences.
Not only is modern technology making it easier to detect and stop plagiarists than ever before, but it also provides a slew of new ways for a plagiarist to trip him or herself up.
With that in mind, here are just five of the stupidest ways I’ve seen plagiarists get caught over the years. These methods include plagiarists both online and off as well as both academic and non-academic plagiarism cases and, to reiterate, they are all actual cases I’ve been involved in or observed.
5. Not Removing Headers/Metadata
Copy/Paste is no longer a simple technology that merely duplicates text, a lot of content is copied as well including images, formatting and much more depending on where you are pulling from.
When you copy something, it can be very difficult to tell what invisible data might be carried with it. This has come back to bite a slew of would-be plagiarists including software plagiarists that leave in code comments, image plagiarists that leave in EXIF data and even academic plagiarists who didn’t scrub their Word file’s metadata.
Yes, metadata is everywhere and it is invisible but anyone with the right tools, or simply the knowledge of where to look, can find it. Teachers and search engines alike routinely parse this information and, if it isn’t cleared, you will almost certainly be caught.
4. Not Reading the Source Material
Plagiarists aren’t typically the hardest working people and, often times, they don’t even spend the energy to read the material they are plagiarizing. They just find something that seems like it will fit their need and go. The problem with that approach is that they often lack basic knowledge on what is actually in the material they are reading.
Offline and on, in and out of the classroom this trips up plagiarists. One plagiarists that took my work was caught when one of their readers noticed she couldn’t answer a seemingly simple question about a character in a story. Teachers in many schools quiz students about their essays as they turn them in to trip up those who didn’t write their own.
It seems simple enough, read and understand what you’re putting your name to but so many get it wrong. This helps the anti-plagiarists though and often makes our lives easier and more fun.
3. Not Removing Links
Leaving in header information is fairly understandable, it’s invisible and many don’t know it’s there. Not reading the material is also understandable since it can be a lot of work and a plagiarist might be rushed. However, some plagiarists get tripped up because they copied and pasted hyperlinks into their work, something that can be spotted with even a cursory glance at the work.
This is a problem that bites plagiarists both offline and on. Spammers routinely are thwarted by including links to other articles you’ve written in your content as they will often scrape those as well. This is why I recommend the activity.
However, it goes from an exploitable flaw to a major blunder when the problem happens to offline plagiarists. Several teachers have reported that student plagiarists have failed to remove hyperlinks from essays that were turned in, even printing the papers out in color, leaving the blue underlined words intact.
It’s just proof that, in some plagiarism cases, the red flag is actually blue.
2. Hyperlinking, Not Downloading
Many people don’t appreciate the difference between linking to content and copying it. Though it seems like an obvious difference to most who use the Web, others find it confusing. After all, both get the image or the content in the Web page or Word file. However, one way both makes it obvious that it isn’t an original work and keeps the original under the creator’s control.
Online, hyperlinking to content you wish to plagiarize is especially common with images and is often dealt with by simply removing the original image or, if the creator is feeling a bit more malicious, changing it to something else altogether.
However, as more and more academic papers, portfolio projects and other assignments are submitted electronically, the use of hyperlinking grows there as well.
Best of all, there are ways this can backfire even without the involvement of the creator. If a server blocks hotlinking or an instructor opens up a paper on a computer without Internet access, the lie is often exposed unintentionally and in a very embarrassing way.
1. Leaving Someone Else’s Name On It
While all the above are pretty stupid ways a plagiarist can get caught, there is one tenet of plagiarism that even the most rank amateur should be able to understand, that you are trying to take credit for someone else’s work.
But what happens when a plagiarist messes up even that simple idea?
Authors routinely reference themselves in their work. Ranging from personal anecdotes to even mentioning themselves by name, especially when someone else is talking to them. Likewise, photographers take self portraits and musician tell personal stories. Self reflection is a part of all media.
Plagiarists, often times not reading the source material, leave these bits in. It can range from a simple story or personal detail known not to apply to the plagiarist all the way to something as flagrant as leaving the full name of the original author in the work.
It can get even more stupid when a plagiarists accidentally copies the footer of the site or content they’re ripping or, even worse, the byline to it.
It’s very difficult to make the case that you wrote the work when you left someone else’s copyright statement at the bottom. It greatly weakens your case.
Are these all the dumb ways a plagiarist can get caught? Of course not. Writing style conflicts, file formatting issues, spelling inconsistencies (UK vs. US) and so forth are also dumb ways a plagiarist can find themselves attracting unwanted attention.
Picking a top five was a tough job and this list could have been much, much longer.
All in all, with technology plagiarism is just as easy as it ever was but getting away with plagiarism is a very hard job indeed.
Those who don’t take care to cover their tracks will, inevitably, be caught, especially if they plagiarize enough.
So let this be a word of warning to a would-be plagiarist, technology may put the world at your fingertips, but it makes it easier than ever to trace where you got your content from.