Whether you are in the classroom, in the work place or just posting online, plagiarism is a topic people don’t like to discuss.
This lack of conversation about plagiarism has led to a series of myths and misunderstandings that, in turn, have led more and more people to commit acts of plagiarism, often unwittingly.
Today we’re going to take a look at five of the more common plagiarism myths that I see and why they are false.
Hopefully, this will help others have a little bit better understanding about what is or is not plagiarism and, more importantly, avoid becoming an unintentional plagiarist down the road.
Myth 1: Plagiarism Checkers Can Spot Plagiarism
Plagiarism detection tools are extremely powerful, but their name is something of a misnomer. Plagiarism detection software doesn’t actually detect plagiarism, but rather, they spot and highlight duplicated text.
Depending on the tool, it may make an effort to not highlight properly-cited text, such as ignoring content in quotations, but all any tool can do is find passages that were first used elsewhere and highlight them. This copying is often not plagiarism at all because the duplicate text is cited, is pure coincidence or just common phrasing.
While plagiarism detection tools are great helping one determine if a work is plagiarized, they still require a human being to make the determination of what is and is not plagiarism.
Myth 2: Plagiarism is All About the Percentage
In a related myth, many believe that if more than a certain percentage of a work comes back as copied, it’s plagiarism. Whether that amount is 5%, 10% or some other amount, the general idea is that there is a hard limit on how much a paper can match and not be plagiarism.
The problem is that, as stated above, plagiarism detection tools don’t detect plagiarism matching text is not necessarily a sign of plagiarism. It’s possible to have a work that has a significant amount of copied text but have it all be properly cited and completely ethical.
On the other hand, even just a sentence or two copied verbatim and not cited is still plagiarism. So it’s entirely possible to have a matching percentage under any theoretical limit that contains a serious plagiarism.
Often times this myth is perpetuated by school that warn students their papers should contain less than a certain percentage of matched text. However, this often has less to do with plagiarism and more about the overuse of quoted material.
It’s important to remember, while a high percentage of matching text is a good reason to investigate a work more deeply, it’s is not an automatic plagiarism conviction.
Myth 3: If You Rewrite, It’s Not Plagiarism
In the same vein, many believe that the easiest way to avoid plagiarism is to simply rewrite and restate everything in the paper. This, however, does not work.
Not only can many plagiarism detection tools spot rewritten text (it’s almost impossible to rewrite a lengthy work well enough to completely avoid detection), but it doesn’t make the work any less plagiarized.
The reason is that plagiarism is not just about words, but about ideas and information as well. If you copy someone else’s work, even without using any of their words, and provide no attribution, it might not be a copyright infringement, but it is still plagiarism.
So while rewriting a piece could, theoretically, could help avoid detection with automated tools, it doesn’t make it any less of a plagiarism.
Myth 4: You Can’t Plagiarize Things Not in Copyright
Speaking of the overlap between copyright and plagiarism, some believe that it’s perfectly acceptable to reuse, without attribution, any text that’s in the public domain or otherwise above a certain age.
While a work being in the public domain does mean you can use it without fear of copyright infringement, that has nothing to do with plagiarism.
If you take credit for the work of another without attribution, it is plagiarism and it doesn’t really matter if the person lived hundreds of years ago or is alive today. You need to state the source for the words, information and ideas you use, no matter when they were created.
After all, plagiarism is not a legal issue unto itself. The standards of plagiarism are set forth by the field you are working in, whether it’s academia, journalism, law, etc. Those standards, however, make no exemptions for old works to “age out” of being cited.
Myth 5: The Rules of Plagiarism are Universal
Finally, on the note of standards of plagiarism, there’s a widespread belief that something simply is or is not a plagiarism and that the rules for content reuse and citation are universal.
However, in reality, they vary quite a great deal. For example, the rules a student encounters in a classroom are very different from the rules a novelist will encounter writing a book. Likewise, the standards a journalist have to live up to are very different than that of a lawyer.
As a result, you need to be mindful of the field that you are working in when deciding whether or not attribution is adequate or whether a use is a plagiarism.
But sometimes that isn’t even enough. Different schools, publications and different people have different standards for what is and is not plagiarism. The differences can hinge on cultural norms, the audience for the piece and countless other factors.
All in all, never assume that there is a universal standard for what is or is not plagiarism. You need to understand the environment you are working in before you make a decision of how to use and cite other’s work.
Plagiarism is inherently complicated. However, most of the myths and misunderstandings around it stem not from those complexities but from attempts to try and find simple rules and guidelines to make plagiarism “easier” to understand and avoid.
The truth is that there are no easy rules or guidelines when it comes to plagiarism. The only way to really understand the issue is to talk about it. This means that teachers and administrators need to do more than write harshly-worded plagiarism guidelines and offer real guidance on how, when and were to cite.
The same applies to editors, supervisors and anyone else who is in charge of compliance with ethical standards.
The best way to prevent plagiarism is having a clearly-understood and well-explained plagiarism policy. All of the detection in the world won’t save you if no one has a clear understanding of what is or is not plagiarism.
So the first step to killing plagiarism is putting an end the confusion around it and the place to start there is with the most common myths.