Plagiarism happens, whether intentional or not, and with it comes consequences. The nightmarish fallout of plagiarism connects Martin Luther King Jr., the New York Times, and Melania Trump. But is it only the authors who suffer?
A 2013 task force convened by former ACES President Teresa Schmedding proclaims that “every act of plagiarism betrays the public’s trust, violates the creator of the original material and diminishes the offender, our craft and our industry.”
Defining plagiarism and attribution
What is plagiarism? More importantly: How do we avoid it? We define attribution as full and proper credit to source material. This includes citing, paraphrasing, quoting, and adhering to a citation style, all of which protect against plagiarism. But the specifics are often tricky, and they differ by field and style.
As the task force explains, proper attribution means giving credit “for information that is not common knowledge,” including “original wording first produced by someone else.” They emphasize that “giving credit should not be construed as a free pass for the verbatim lifting of copy” — an important, if not universally understood, piece of guidance. Especially when there are exceptions.
If not the plagiarism police, we are the attribution fairy godmothers, armed with tips, tools, and the fairy dust of research and experience.
The AP Stylebook notes that short, syndicated sources may be copied, and press releases from such sources may be rewritten and then republished without credit. Such exceptions create a slippery slope for those unfamiliar with the finer notes of attribution, especially when it comes to legal issues; many style guides focus intently on copyright claims. And while publications have legal teams, many lack formal upholders of attribution standards, a responsibility that frequently falls on the unwitting authors.
New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson was accused of plagiarizing passages in her new book, Merchants of Truth. When confronted, Abramson, taking a common defense, refused to label her errors as plagiarism despite their clear match to the NYT’s definition.
Just as Abramson’s publisher likely took for granted her adherence to such norms, schools assume students already understand attribution rules. A discussion of plagiarism beyond “don’t do it!” is often not part of university requirements or coursework. As in journalism, formal training in the gray areas is not widespread across the academy. There are exceptions, of course — see Princeton University's recent work on academic integrity and the research of Syracuse University’s Rebecca Moore Howard.
Our Role as Editors
Editors are the bearers and imparters of knowledge and standards. Our careful attention to serial commas and pronoun ambiguity matter little in light of a plagiarism accusation. We must define and demystify this sticky concept so attribution can be harnessed as an integral and powerful tool.
Editors can champion this undertaking. Here’s how.
If not the plagiarism police, we are the attribution fairy godmothers, armed with tips, tools, and the fairy dust of research and experience. Plagiarism happens, and our goal is to help you — the editor — arm yourself against it. Learn the nuances of attribution and how plagiarism, even the inadvertent kind, can be avoided before the copyright infringement hits the fan. As we tell our students: you don’t want to be a headline.
Aileen Brenner Houston is a thesis processor and the attribution lead for the Naval Postgraduate School (contractor, Sustainment and Restoration Services), where she manages the thesis and dissertation office's plagiarism-prevention initiative and works with students and faculty on editing, formatting, and attribution. The recipient of ACES' 2018 Aubespin scholarship, Aileen is currently pursuing a master's degree in rhetoric, writing, and digital media studies from Northern Arizona University.
Rebecca Pieken is a thesis processor for the Naval Postgraduate School (contractor, Sustainment and Restoration Services), where she works with students and faculty on editing, formatting, and attribution. She is a co-creator of the Naval Postgraduate School's citation style webpages' comprehensive guides, which provide easy-to-follow reference examples for the school's commonly used citation styles and source types. Rebecca has more than 30 years' experience in various types of publishing, including time as managing editor at Henry Holt and Macmillan and project manager at McGraw Hill.