It comes with the territory of my work. Regularly I catch people in the act of plagiarism.
These aren’t minor cases of plagiarism either. For example, two weeks ago I had an incident where a new business had copied every word, image and page off of a competitors’ site, only changing the logo and title.
While that extreme is still fairly rare, I regularly I catch people taking whole articles, including hundreds or thousands of words at a time. Other times I find people claiming dozens of images as their own in portfolios or even claiming that they wrote whole programs that they had nothing to do with.
Unfortunately, as I’ve seen time and again, plagiarists are not particularly good at apologies (which is sad considering I’ve given them an apology letter they can use).
What plagiarists tend to be better at is making excuses and nearly every plagiarist I’ve met has done so.
But as I look back over the excuses I’ve heard, they tend to largely boil down to one of three categories or combinations thereof. So, for the sake of convenience, I’ve decided to list and debunk the three most common excuses I hear so, the next time you have to face plagiarist, you can anticipate and respond to the excuses quickly.
1. It Wasn’t Me. It was…
For many plagiarists, the first instinct is to shift the blame, all that really changes is who they blame.
Students will blame other students, professionals will blame their colleagues, companies their (likely former) employee and everyone loves to blame an anonymous freelancer that worked on the project. However, when you ask for a name of the person responsible, one is rarely given.
But whether or not the “true” plagiarist is real or not is a moot point. This argument falls apart on the very simple grounds that it’s the person making the excuse who put their name on the work and presented it as theirs. They had the responsibility of ensuring the work carrying their name was free of plagiarism or other ethical missteps.
This is true for a student turning in an assignment, a celebrity having a ghostwritten autobiography, a company putting together their website or anything in between. If your name is on it, you have a responsibility to ensure its authenticity, regardless of who helped you with it.
It’s really that simple.
2. I Didn’t Know it Was Wrong
This excuse is a rather broad one that takes many shapes, but it boils down to the plagiarist alleging that they didn’t realize their action was improper. This includes the student thinking that plagiarism is just how an assignment is supposed to work, a blogger thinking anything on the Web is ok for them to take under their name and so forth.
Sometimes the excuse takes a legal bend, saying that they didn’t know what they were doing was copyright infringement, other times it’s a more ethical one, arguing that they didn’t think they were hurting anyone or that they didn’t realize what they were doing was against the moral code.
However, this falls apart in two different ways. First, and most directly, ignorance of the law is no excuse. When you create content for a medium, you have an obligation to understand the rules and responsibilities. Failing to learn them doesn’t excuse you from complying with them.
More importantly though, the act of plagiarism is the act of saying you created something that you didn’t. That, at its core, is lying. While lying isn’t always illegal, it is, in the vast majority of cases, clearly unethical and it’s a taboo that is fairly universal.
3. It Was a Mistake
Finally, when some plagiarists are caught, they refuse to admit that they knew what they were doing was wrong and blame it on a mistake or an error.
In some cases, this actually makes sense. When you’re looking at a short passage in a long dissertation that was cited but not quoted, it is very possible the quote marks were just omitted by accident. But when you’re talking about the republishing of entire articles, lengthy passage, collections of photographs, etc., the mistake excuse begins to wear more than a bit thin.
While a mistake is unlikely or even impossible in most of the cases where it is claimed, even if it is true, this once again goes back to the “It wasn’t me” excuse and the idea that the author of a work has to bear responsibility for it. This goes beyond plagiarism and includes checking that the work isn’t libelous, is factually accurate and so forth.
While a mistake that leads to plagiarism may not be an ethical violation, it’s still a transgression. Whether it’s sloppy work, a failure to use the tools available to prevent unintentional duplication or something else, the author is still ultimately responsible.
In the end, it’s the nature of the violation, not the intention, that has the largest role in determining how serious the infraction is. For example, if the plagiarism rises to the level of copyright infringement, the intent of the author, at most, impacts the damages that could be awarded, not whether infringement took place.
At the end of the day, one ultimately bears responsibility for things they put out with their name on it. This is no different than you being responsible for what you put on your site, what you put in your resume and what you put in your portfolio.
Too many plagiarists fail to admit the obvious, that they were faced with a choice and they made the wrong one. It’s really that simple.
The truth is this, everyone makes poor choices and many great people have been accused of plagiarism with legitimacy. But it isn’t the mistake or the poor judgment that defines us, it’s how we respond to it.
Too many plagiarists don’t seem to understand this and, in failing to grasp it, make an already bad situation much, much worse.
Because, when it comes to plagiarism, dodging blame is like dodging rain. The harder you try, the more wet you’re going to get.