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Home > Publications > Quill > Ethics Toolbox



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Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Ethics Toolbox

Keep the urge to plagiarize at bay

By Kevin Z. Smith

Some years ago while teaching a freshman composition course at a state college, I received a paper from a student whose writing had taken an astounding turn for the better. Suspecting she plagiarized the paper, I investigated and, not to my surprise, discovered she had lifted wholesale from an online source.

It was easy to find the source. When I typed her topic into the search engine, the original text showed up as the top result. She hadn't made any attempt to look beyond the first reference. Since this was her first draft, I red-lettered an F onto the paper w i t h my pen for dramatic effect. She asked why and I told her that cutting and pasting whole paragraphs from someone else's work without attribution or citation was stealing and therefore not tolerated. Her paper was about 80 percent stolen, but now I demanded she would have to do her own writing. A week later when she submitted her finished product it was better in that she lessened her thievery. Instead, she had copied and pasted about half.

Fast forward to this summer. I'm now a faculty member at the University of Dayton. Before the start of the semester I attended the mandatory freshman convocation. At the end, every freshman in attendance was required to stand and pledge oath to the university's honor code, which includes these words: "Avoid plagiarism and any other form of misrepresenting someone else's work as my own."

I submit these two anecdotes to confirm that plagiarism runs rampant in academic writing courses, and therefore serious steps are taken to prevent intellectual theft by lazy or unwitting neophytes. As suggested by including it in an honor code, there are consequences for this transgression.

If only the same can be said in the journalism profession, both in terms of honor and repercussions.

What we think is a fairly sensible pronouncement when it comes to academic and professional integrity regarding writing seems to be increasingly more difficult to grasp by professionals, many with substantial experience. I can’t recall another year in which more cases of plagiarism have been noted in the media profession. There is an epidemic among the new and the veteran, and it’s difficult for me to rationalize.

The frankness of this sin is demonstrated in SPJ’s Code of Ethics with a forceful, simple line: “Never plagiarize.”

Over 15 years ago when we were crafting the current code, those of us in the room searched for the perfect language to convey each principle. After some debate, Lou Hodges, one of the primary authors of SPJ's first ethics book, put forth the wording we have today. Just simply say "never do it." It's patently wrong and needs no explanation. We agreed. So that single line stands out within a larger code, written as the only negative sentence in a document that promotes all other tenets positively.

That was in the mid-'90s. Until this year, we were confident those two words were stone-cold emphatic. We learned differently. And in March, SPJ's Ethics Committee offered a position paper that further elaborated its views on plagiarism. Written by committee member Lauren Bartlett, the official viewpoint of SPJ on this subject ends with: "Some of the most simple, straightforward and fundamental principles are ones that unfortunately need repeating. SPJ admonishes all journalists to take special care so that proper attribution is given at all times."

Two years ago I blogged on this topic for Demand Media, which at the time was having a rash of plagiarized freelance work submitted. In that piece I wondered aloud why any self-respecting professional writer would want to take someone else’s words, when creating their own seemed much more rewarding. I can understand a freshman with minimal writing skills feeling intimidated and taking the easy way out by stealing. But professional writers who pride themselves on being wordsmiths? It makes no sense.

To keep the urge to plagiarize at bay, I offer this simple three-step approach to my students:

• Use knowledge as your guide. Understanding the topic you're covering by researching/learning it allows you to rely less on the work of previous authors. By being educated on the issue, you're less compelled to take from another because you're comfortable articulating the information in your own words. Be the explainer, not the repeater.

• When that level of understanding or comfort doesn't exist or there is a need to borrow, make sure you attribute it.

• Last, if you've simply fallen in love with someone else's prose, it's OK to show that love by acknowledging it. But, even better, start your own fan club by crafting your own perfect words.

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