The general context
Plagiarism means copying or in some way reproducing someone else’s work without giving them credit or acknowledgement. In many ways, it is a form of stealing consistent with the etymological root of ‘plagiarism’, which in Latin means ‘kidnapping’. Using another’s work without permission and/or credit signals one of three different situations: copyright breach, plagiarism or invasion of privacy (Branscum, 1991; Howard, 2003; Leval, 1990).
Copyright is a legal issue. If you use without permission work that has been published in a tangible medium or patented, you breach copyright and are liable to lawsuits. However, copyright expires after a certain amount of time, when the work becomes part of the public domain. Copyright law was designed to protect the rights of producers of literary and artistic artifacts. However, public access to such artifacts also needed legal protection, so the doctrine of fair use was created as an amendment to copyright law. Fair use entails using a part of a work for purposes that benefit the public good, such as for education. According to fair use, you may use another’s work without permission if:
- You are using only a fraction and not the complete item.
- You give credit to the original source.
- The item has been published and is, therefore, not private.
- The purpose is educational.
- Your use of the material will not affect the market value of the original.
Government documents are considered public property and are not copyrighted. This does not mean to say, that you can copy material from them without citing the source. Or else, this would be plagiarism. If you reproduce a work or part of a work without acknowledging the original creator, and present it as being your own, you are plagiarizing, even in cases where the work is not copyrighted.
Copyright protects only the tangible expression of an idea, not the idea itself. Plagiarism regulations cover the unacknowledged reproduction of the idea itself. Individual scholars produce and publish ideas for their livelihood, and any unacknowledged use of their hard work is both injury and insult. These accounts for the heavy penalties universities impose on students convicted of plagiarism; although legal sanctions do not apply in such cases, the ethical violation carries an equally serious consequence, exclusion (temporary or permanent) from the community.
Plagiarism can be avoided by:
- Summarizing – expressing in your own words the gist of a document, and citing the source.
- Paraphrasing – expressing in your own words the gist of a part of an idea, and citing the source.
- Quoting – copying the exact words of a section of the original document, putting them in quotation marks to set them off from your own words, and citing the source.
All ideas that you take from other texts need referencing. The only exception is common knowledge. Common knowledge consists of propositions and statements that did not originate with the writer, but that are accepted facts in the wider community. Examples include such propositions as ‘Berlin is the capital of Germany’, ‘The Earth is a planet’ and ‘Three plus two equals five’. This, however, is not always so straightforward because knowledge, in many cases, is dependent on the community in which it is used. When using another’s work you may also be invading their privacy, a legally sanctioned offence. This generally occurs when you publicize information that the originator kept personal or private. If you publish your roommate’s journal on the Internet, for example, you are infringing on their privacy. If you publish the journal and present it as your own, you are also plagiarizing.
The professional context
As the last example shows, the professional world presents a challenge to conventions regarding plagiarism. Instances exist in business and industry where presenting another’s work as your own is an accepted practice. Examples include boilerplate text and public relations documents. Boilerplate is standardized text that can be reproduced verbatim, or with minor alterations, for different audiences and documents. For instance, letters sent to clients to inform them of company developments or changes work on the boilerplate model, all recipients get basically the same letter, with only the opening address differing. In such cases, the individual whose name appears on the document is not the same as the one who wrote a section of the document.
Public relations documents are also often anonymous, attributed to anyone who may be a PR officer at a particular time, or written by someone other than the one whose name appears on the document. For instance, corporate websites and promotional material, such as brochures, often contain segments written by different individuals, and they can be updated by rewriting some sections, reorganizing information by cutting and pasting from different sections, etc. Â all without acknowledging the original source. Furthermore, speeches and articles of Chief Executive Officers (CEOs), and other senior personnel, are more often than not written by the company’s professional writers, but presented as the CEO’s own words. The original writer in these cases has nothing to show but financial remuneration and secret pride. These cases are more variants than aberrations of the plagiarism conventions discussed in the previous section. In the corporate world, the company takes precedent over the individual in matters of production. In many cases, new staffs are asked to sign agreements stating that their work belongs to the company; producing material that the company can use is part of their job description. This is publicly known and acknowledged as business convention; therefore the CEO who puts his name on an article written by his writers is not morally or legally reprehensible. In such instances, the corporation is seen as a body, and acting as an individual. Stepping outside the boundaries of a company, however, would transgress this convention. If a writer of X company, for example, used material that a writer of Y company wrote, he/she would no doubt be plagiarizing. Other documents, especially those that involve major finalisable projects, follow rules akin to those of academic contexts. For example, proposals to management for funding and/or approval of a project always include writers’ names, and so do reports describing the results of an investigation. Also, in such reports, the writers are expected to cite their sources of information, and to quote, summarize and paraphrase as appropriate. Besides giving credit where it is due, citing sources, in both professional and academic contexts, enhances a writer’s accountability as well.