Brain Break (English Class)

Carbon Copy

Time for a trip down memory lane! Your teacher assigned a term paper. You know the kind I mean: at least ten pages (double-spaced), cited with references, usually on a topic NOT of your choosing. Maybe you get a few weeks to work on it (outside of class; no self-respecting teacher’s going to waste class time hauling your butt down to the library). And – if you do things properly – your research involves a giant stack of index cards, with one quote or important fact scribbled down per card so you get those citations written properly. If you reported to a stern teacher, those note cards went in with the paper: proof of your research AND evidence that you didn’t plagiarize a single sentence.

Sound familiar?

If you don’t come from Generation X (or older), probably not. Because the internet hit the scene when we ventured into college, and the notecard died a slow death. Better for the plunder of trees to create those rigid paper rectangles, but for intellectual property? Yeah, the beginning of an upward battle. Instead of spending hours writing out information and laboriously integrating quotes, facts, and details into papers, people discovered the beauty of ctrl-C and ctrl-V. Research time dropped to a fraction. And plagiarism? It turned into an epidemic.

You SHOULD have learned about plagiarism in school. (I admit, it’s been a fair amount of time since I attended, and I’m not familiar with the curriculum anymore) Just in case, let’s review the definition, shall we?

“The act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person.”

~Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Now, I’ll skip over the fact that “ideas” is a tricky concept. (There are NO unique ideas out there. That’s a different topic for another day, though) When you lift someone’s words and plop them into yours without a citation (guess what – that quote above demonstrates the technique nicely), you’re STEALING them. And it’s a violation of copyright. You know, the information at the front of the book you usually flip past to get to the first page of interesting text? Plagiarism is an offense, and if someone catches you, that copyright can come with prosecution.

That rigmarole with the notecards? It was how they hammered the lesson into our heads when I was a kid. You could write the direct information down (putting the reference material on the back), but – unless you planned to use it as a quote – you then needed to manipulate the text into YOUR words. They wanted to coach us to express the same concept in a new way. And when you think about it, it’s a fantastic exercise in creative writing. Can you look at a sentence, find the “meat” of the message, and write it in ten difference ways without losing any information? A writer worth their salt doesn’t have a problem doing so. A lazy writer plagiarizes the sentence and moves on.

And plagiarism is RIFE on the internet.

Writers, I think, are sensitive to the subject. Let me rephrase that: COMPETENT writers are sensitive to the subject. We take the time to research, review, and edit our work. Words are sacred things, dominating our world. The work we put out holds meaning to us. So when we come across blatant plagiarism, our little writer senses start tingling. (Side note: I love Stan Lee as much as the next nerd, but “tingling” is one of the WORST words in the English language and why Spider-Man makes my head hurt) No one polices the internet, allowing so-called writers to copy-paste content without a second thought. Those quick keystrokes have proved to be migraines for schools and even colleges. It’s why plagiarism checkers exist – though they have their faults. (Grammarly’s is TOO sensitive. It often yells at me because of words showing up together that people often combine, such as “breed of dog.” I can’t do much with that)

I stumbled on a site plagiarizing one of my editing clients. My blood pressure hit the roof. Paragraph after paragraph that I was currently revising scanned under my eye. Granted, I ended up making changes to the original site, but I wanted to beat the down the metaphorical door of the imposter. And the more I looked, the more content I found listed en masse from other sites. Meanwhile, their Privacy Policy insisted all of the material on the site was “original.” I reported the site to my client. I wanted to do more, but I’m nothing more than their editor; I don’t exactly have “stake in the game.” It made my blood boil that someone could be THAT lazy, though. And, even worse, they posted a bio claiming they were a WRITER?!

A writer doesn’t engage in plagiarism. Even if you’re tasked with writing about a topic someone else has already tackled, you DON’T steal words. Feed your writing brain the information and spit out new sentences. We’re all creative, right? That means we can come up with a different way to say the same thing. And if you can’t? Quote the person! It’s the fair (and lawfully correct) thing to do. After all, sometimes people put together sentences so beamingly beautiful and succinct, you can’t improve on them. Their words stop you in your tracks and make you sit back. Giving a person credit for their words doesn’t make you less of a writer.

Stealing words? Engaging in plagiarism and patting yourself on the back for churning out dozens and dozens of content faster than others due to your theft? Yeah, THAT makes you – well, I’m not even willing to call you a writer. You’re a copier. A machine that mimeographs someone else. And, frankly, no one’s going to admire you.

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