Why You Can’t Make Someone Else’s Words Your Own

The Jumi Bello plagiarism scandal became a national news story due to the meta-nature of the plagiarism. Any story about a plagiarism apology being pulled for plagiarism is going to make headlines, doubly so for plagiarizing from a site named Plagiarism Today. 

But, as I said in my final thoughts on the case, the story is actually much deeper and raises much bigger questions. 

Specifically, her apology essay outlined her writing practice. In it, she discussed how she copied and pasted the works of others and then rewrote it to, in her mind, make it hers. 

This, clearly, is not how one should write. It violated the basic tenets of what it means to write in your own words. Furthermore, it’s a direct violation of the cleanroom writing system, which is by far the easiest way to avoid plagiarism issues.

However, while many are dismissive about how an author could believe that, the truth is that she is far from alone. Many students, at all levels of academia, believe the same thing, as do many professionals. During the week that the Bello story was unfolding, I was brought in on two separate cases involving that kind of writing, one involving a college student and one involving a journalist.

In short, Bello is far from alone in this belief, and it’s important that the idea be addressed. Simply put, you cannot take someone else’s writing and, through editing, make it your own. Even if done perfectly, it remains a form of plagiarism. However, the odds of it being done that perfectly are slim to none.

To that end, here’s why this approach to writing doesn’t work.

1: You’ll Eventually Forget

Part of being human is making mistakes. However, a mistake in this area creates clear, easy to detect verbatim plagiarism. 

When copying and pasting heavily into a new work, it can be easy to forget not only what came from where, but what is original versus what needs to be edited. It’s incredibly easy to leave passages unaltered.

So, even if one believes that this kind of writing is acceptable, it opens the door to easy and inevitable mistakes. It becomes a matter of when, not if, a mistake is made, creating problems that could have been easily avoided.

2: It’s Nearly Impossible to Completely Edit Copied Text

Editing pre-written text so that it is not detectable by both humans and machines is nearly impossible. Plagiarism detection tools can spot incredibly short matching strings, often just a few words long. Humans can spot familiar patterns in the writing itself, so that, even if no words match, it will still be obvious where it came from.

To rewrite existing language to avoid potential issues is time-consuming and arduous. It’s simply too easy to get lazy or to take shortcuts that leave behind more of the source than intended. 

Furthermore, it’s generally much easier to simply write something original than it is to edit text so heavily it becomes unrecognizable. When you start with original work, editing becomes more about polishing and streamlining, not trying to erase the traces of what came before.

3: It’s Not Writing

When you paste someone else’s work into yours and edit it, you’re not writing. You’re editing. While it is true that the edited work may look very different and might not even be recognizable to humans or machines examining it, it is still the other person’s writing.

The point of original writing is not to simply avoid being accused of plagiarism. It’s to take the information that you’ve learned, and express it in your words. If you’re writing to fool either plagiarism detection software or savvy readers, you’re not actually writing, you’re just trying to obfuscate someone else’s work enough to pass.

Even if such a work is never identified as plagiarism, it’s still not original. The goal with writing, regardless of setting, should be originality, not simply avoiding plagiarism issues.

Bottom Line

In the end, the cleanroom writing technique is the only way to write a paper, or any other kind of work, and ensure that it is free from plagiarized material. 

However, it’s important to remember that plagiarism is not a bright line rule. Simply because it passes a plagiarism check or fools a particular reader, doesn’t mean that there aren’t issues and that those issues can’t be found later.

The only way to truly avoid plagiarism in your writing is to write for originality. When you use your own words, you can be confident that there are no plagiarism issues. When you edit someone’s else’s, you can often avoid discovery, but it’s still not your work. 

Furthermore, you’re simply waiting for a slip up or an accident to make your flawed approach to writing evident.