The P Word: Why Plagiarism Is a Sin

All through high school and college English classes, I heard the P word at least once a semester. It was scandalous, a sin in fact. The one commandment of writing, I learned, is “Thou shalt not plagiarize.” As a teenager I had difficulty grasping the concept, but the more I wrote, the more I understood: if you didn’t write it, then don’t pass it off as your own — and changing a word here or there is not enough. This has grown into a passion of mine as an editor.

One small aspect of a copyeditor’s job is to highlight for the author certain material that may require permission (another scary P word). Generally this comes up when an author has chosen to excerpt some material from another source. Although the appropriate credit has been given, the excerpt is long enough or involved enough to warrant asking permission of the copyright holder to use his or her work. Now, there are a lot of ins and outs to permissions, and it’s understandable that even experienced authors get confused as to what requires permission and what doesn’t. I allow no such excuse for plagiarism.

Why so harsh? Because unlike permissions and copyrights, plagiarism isn’t a fuzzy gray area of law. It is a simple yes or no question: did you write this or not? I have seen plagiarism too many times by grown men and women, and what I have realized is, the sole motivation behind it is laziness. In books and articles, the self-published and those professionally done, I have discovered entire paragraphs — sometimes three or four paragraphs in a row — that were taken directly from another source, with no mention of the other source anywhere in the document. What kills me is, the author doesn’t seem to recognize that he or she has a particular voice or style of writing; when I come across something that a third person has written, it is usually pretty obvious.

Call me cynical, but I have come to believe these authors do it because they think they won’t get caught. I told one perpetrator, who was surprised when I called such a problem to her attention, “All I have to do is copy a sentence from your document into a search engine and I can find where you took it from.” Her response? An incredulous “Really?” Yes, really. Just as easily as you were able to copy and paste the material from Wikipedia into your manuscript, I am able to do a reverse search and find the source you stole from. And how embarrassing it is for all of us when I have to say, I’m sorry, this is plagiarism and you must rewrite it or cut it from your book.

On occasion it is possible this is just a simple mistake. However, more often, I have found multiple sections in a single manuscript that were pulled directly from another source. (Wikipedia is definitely a favorite, but not the only one.) What does this say to me? That the author didn’t actually want to write the book. He or she wanted to have a book published with his or her name emblazoned on the front, yes, but this person did not want to do the work needed to actually accomplish that goal. And that, to me, is sinful.

It all comes down to a question of integrity — the integrity of you, the author, and the integrity of the text you are excerpting. If you don’t know the rules, educate yourself before you begin the great undertaking of writing a book. If you do know the rules, follow them. It’s not that hard. It’s certainly easier to do it right the first time, and then you don’t have to try to explain yourself to your editor when she finds out what you’ve been doing behind closed doors.

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