This past week bloggers accused Malcolm Gladwell and The New Yorker of plagiarism. That’s especially notable because of The New Yorker’s famously rigorous fact-checking and proofreading. I’m not impressed with the case that Gladwell plagiarized, but the allegations remind us how much easier it is to track possible plagiarism in the age of the Internet and search engines. It’s ironic in that the Internet and search engines also make it easier to commit plagiarism and, arguably, the total amount of plagiarism has increased in the digital age.
The Gladwell case is specious in part because magazine journalism, without footnotes, cannot as fully (at least without considerable clumsiness) cite every distant allusion. But in book publishing, with our apparatus of footnotes, we do not have that excuse. Here are some guidelines authors can consider as they (you) write their books and seek to avoid plagiarism.
1. Avoiding plagiarism begins at the research stage. You know the old saw, “Originality is a matter of forgetting where you read it first.” Notetaking and other research, at even the earliest stages, should include careful citation of sources. Otherwise it’s simply too easy to later adapt something whose origin you’ve forgotten, and claim it as your own. Pastors especially should be aware of this caution. Since their books often involve adaptation of sermons, Sunday school lessons, Bible studies, and the like, if they’re planning to write and adapt some of this material, notetaking from the beginning should include indications on where quotes and unique information came from.
2. Avoiding plagiarism isn’t accomplished simply by changing a few words from a source. It isn’t enough to crib a quote and merely change some wording. Plagiarism includes the lifting of unique information, and not merely wording. So if you’re borrowing a unique idea or information, that calls for citation.
3. Avoiding plagiarism calls for special sensitivity with metaphors or similes. These figures of speech are original and need citation every time. Borrowing them without attribution is behavior as welcome as a fart in a clown car. Of course, there are many metaphors and similes that have entered the common parlance (like “fart in a clown car”) and have no clear originators. In such cases no attribution is necessary—but then other rules can come into play, since lively and effective writing avoids cliches.
4. Avoiding plagiarism has no technological fixes, but there are some helps. Plagiarism is prevented by assiduous research (with sourced notetaking) and by honorable sourcing and citation in the published piece. There are no simple (or complex) technological fixes for avoiding plagiarism, then, but there are some devices now developed that can provide an assist. These are websites and apps (such as Grammarly) into which you can paste your work and have them surf the net to detect similar or identical wording in other documents. Obviously, this does not detect the borrowing of ideas, but it may prevent you from inadvertently quoting another source whose origin you’ve forgotten.