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Editor Assistance

May 3 2012 Editor Assistance Newsletter

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We've had two separate plagiarism issues come up recently, so I thought it well worth it for us to review this critical topic. It is important for all web writers to thoroughly understand plagiarism, since the fines for infringement can start at $25,000 an incident. That's even if you made zero money from your version. In our tough economy many companies are merrily cracking down on all infringers in order to bring in easy money.

I have broken this down into three categories to help make the explanations more clear.

Cutting and Pasting Plagiarism

First, the category that most know and understand. Cutting and pasting content. If someone else wrote content, and you cut-and-paste it and put it on your own site, then that is absolutely plagiarism. Doing this could cause you to be liable for tens of thousands of dollars. You should never cut and paste content from any other website.

Google makes tracking you down incredibly easy. All the author has to do is run one of many automated tools that searches the web for copies of what they wrote. The tools look for key phrases. Once they find that your site has a copy of their content, they sic their lawyers on you and now you owe quite a lot of money to them. Especially with the poor economy, many writers are looking at this as an easy way to make money. Think of it - they could make $50 writing an article, or they could get an instant $25,000 for tracking down one thief.

Not only will your infringement be incredibly easy to find, and the money risk is high, but there's the additional penalty that Google imposes on duplicate content. Google uses robots to do its rankings. Human eyeballs generally aren't involved. So if your content contains a duplicate of content found elsewhere, their robots push you far down the listing results - if they don't ban you completely. Google wants to reward sites with unique content. If you are featuring content already found elsewhere, they don't want to feature you. You have nothing special to offer.

So this then means that even if the piece in question is public domain, you shouldn't have it on your site. The harm that the duplicate content causes to your search rankings far outweighs any tiny amount of good it could cause to have the content on that page. Don't run it. Link to its "most authentic location" for people to read it there.

So, to summarize, never, ever cut and paste content from any other website.

Minor Rewording Plagiarism

Second, the plagiarism category that gets a bit more confusing. You can't read a work someone else wrote, tweak the wording slightly, and then put it on your own site. That is plagiarism. So for example imagine that a website had this wording on its page:

Emerald, by definition, is a medium or darker green to blue green beryl, in which the green color is derived from impurities of Chromium, Vanadium, or a combination of both. Before 1963 the definition was limited to Chromium containing stones, but the discovery of a large deposit of Vanadium colored stones in Brazil led to modification.

Now let's say you decided to put this onto your own page:

Emeralds are dark green to bluish- green beryl, in which the green color is derived from impurities of chromium or vanadium, or a combination of both. Before 1963, the definition of emerald was limited to chromium-containing stones, but the discovery of a large deposit of vanadium-colored stones in Brazil led to modification.

That absolutely is plagiarism. That will get you hit with a $25,000+ fine. And this will be super-easy for the original author to find. All they have to do is do a Google search for what they feel is a fairly unique phrase in their article, let's say "discovery of a large deposit of Vanadium colored stones". Google would show, as matches, both the original article and the plagiarized version one after another in the search results. The original author then simply forwards that to her lawyer and suddenly the fines start reining down.

And, again, Google's robots will spot this as well. They will clearly see how similar those two sets are to each other and they know which one came first. Their own database knows who the original writer was. So they will severely penalize the plagiarist either with diminished rankings for all their content or outright blocking of their sites.

So again, even if the original work was public domain, this should never be done. The negative consequences are fairly serious. If the work is NOT public domain, then the financial penalties are fairly staggering.

Rewriting Plagiarism
This is a category that confuses some writers. They figure, "Hey I wrote this in my own words. So therefore it's mine". Quite the contrary. Plagiarism is not only about the WORDS but also about the THOUGHTS that were written. That is, imagine this scenario. I decide to read the first Harry Potter book and I like it a lot. So when I'm done I write a book that is the complete story from beginning to end with the same characters and plots. I write it in my own words, though. That is still plagiarism. Just because I didn't use J. K. Rowling's WORDS, I am still presenting her THOUGHTS and that is plagiarism. She could sue me - and she has sued several authors who have done this.

This leads some writers to say, "but wait! How could I possibly write a completely new article on emeralds? Anything I said has undoubtedly been said before." Or a writer could say, "How am I supposed to report on the features and issues with my Kindle Fire? Surely anything at all I brought up has been mentioned by many other bloggers before me." Yes, this is all true. But the key is that your research must be based on your own experience, and if you're involving research, you must include MULTIPLE sources and take only BASIC NOTES when working from those sources.

You should never have the source webpage / book / etc. open in front of you while you write "your version". That is absolutely plagiarism. Instead, you should read each source and make brief notes about facts and figures. Go one by one through numerous sources, figuring out what is good and not-so-good about the item you are researching. Incorporate your own knowledge and background and experience with the subject. Then, when you are ready to write YOUR article, work from those notes. Arrange them in an order that makes sense to you. If you do that properly your end result should be nothing at all like any of the sources. Yes, your article might mention the same colors of emerald, or it might mention the same speed and memory specs of the Kindle Fire, but everything else should be in a different order, with different phrasing, with a different thought pattern. There should never be any way to look at the final product and see clearly where it "came from". If you COULD see traces of the source in the final product, that is a sign that plagiarism is taking place.

Let me know if you have any questions about plagiarism! This is an incredibly serious area, and it is well worth investing the time to understand it fully.

Lisa Shea, owner


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