The consequences of plagiarism can be severe, so any aspiring writer is well advised to make sure she understands how to avoid this offense.
What Is Plagiarism?
Roget's Dictionary defines plagiarism as, "The unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one's own work."
In a more practical sense, behaviors that can be interpreted as plagiarism include:
- Submitting work completely written by another person as your own material
- Copying parts of materials written by several different writers and including them in your own work
- Failing to properly attribute selected quotes or original ideas to the correct source
- Reusing material you wrote in the past
- Performing minor rewrites of another writer's work and attempting to pass it off as your own
It's important to note that a person's intention doesn't really factor into whether or not something is plagiarism. Even if a writer copies portions of text due to sloppy research practices or ignorance of journalistic ethics, she is still considered to be guilty of plagiarism.
Many people mistakenly think that plagiarism is only an issue that comes up when dealing with inexperienced writers. This is entirely untrue, however. Plagiarism can happen at all types of publications, ranging from small Web sites staffed by writers fresh out of college to some of the nation's most prestigious newspapers. In 2003, reporter Jayson Blair shocked the journalism world when it was discovered that he had plagiarized more than 40 different articles for The New York Times. He blamed substance abuse and bipolar disorder for his actions, but his behavior did have the positive effect of causing many publications to tighten their policies regarding fact checking and verification of sources.
Academic Penalties for Plagiarism
In a classroom setting, the consequences of plagiarism will depend upon the teacher, the school's general policies, and the degree of the offense. Possible consequences include:
- Being asked to redo the assignment
- An automatic failing grade for the assignment, with no opportunity to redo it
- An automatic failing grade for the class
- Losing a scholarship or having an academic award revoked
- Suspension or expulsion from school
If you are completing college coursework in English, journalism, or communications, you can expect the professor to spend a fair amount of time elaborating on the dangers of plagiarism. Depending upon what college or university you attend, you may even be asked to sign a code of conduct which states that you will not turn in plagiarized material for any of your assignments.
Professional Consequences of Plagiarism
For a professional writer, a plagiarism accusation will be taken very seriously. In the field of freelance Web content writing, suspicions of plagiarism are grounds for termination - even if the plagiarized portion of the text is only a few paragraphs. Because plagiarism creates duplicate content that is bad for search engine rankings, it is common for companies to run every article a writer submits through plagiarism software or plagiarism detection sites. If an article doesn't pass this automatic test, the writer will not be paid and won't be offered future work.
Plagiarism is harder to prove for novelists, but suspicions of plagiarism can put a damper on an otherwise promising career. Kaavya Viswanathan, author of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, had her novel recalled and lost her contract for a second book after accusations were made that she plagiarized portions of text from several other authors. A college student at the time, Ms. Viswanathan claimed the similarities in her work were unintentional. However, the damage to her career as a professional novelist was already done.
Once a writer hits the big time, it's fairly common for him or her to be accused of stealing ideas from other lesser-known writers. Famous writers like Stephen King, JK Rowling, and Dan Brown have dealt with high profile plagiarism accusations in the past. Even though they were all found not liable, dealing with the legal expenses and potential for bad publicity was still a significant hassle for them.