Copy and Paste: Avoiding Plagiarism

Attribution is the antidote to plagiarism

you, the columnist

By Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber

Angry as all get out, as Texans like to say. That’s how I feel when I think about what happened in recent months to many of our NSNC colleagues. More than their words were stolen when their columns were plagiarized in separate incidents by two small-town newspaper editors.

When you steal the work of others, you steal their mind, body and soul, too. We are the essence of what we write. A stolen watch is a sentimental object. A stolen column is a piece of your heart.

These creeps, too lazy to write their own stuff, changed a couple of words to claim it as their own, then copied and pasted the rest.

Worst part was when one of the thieves won a humor writing contest for the work he poached from one of our members.

It’s remarkably easy to plagiarize. But it’s also not much of a challenge to catch the thieves doing it either. As NSNC members George Waters, Charley Memminger, Erik Deckers, Sheila Moss and others can attest, all you, the columnist, have to do is copy a portion of a paragraph from one of your columns, place it in quote marks, paste it into the Google search box – and see what comes up.

Come to think of it, that’s how the thieves do it, too. Copy and paste. Copy and paste.

Polygraph Letter Copier Jefferson Used

The copier that Thomas Jefferson used, legitimately.

This is not only happening to columnists. In every field of endeavor now, someone is copying and pasting from someone else. The ease of it has become part of our culture. It’s an epidemic. Ask any student. Years ago, you had to retype the stolen words into your work. Now it’s done the 2012 way: copy and paste.

I was reading a blog recently. Did a copy and paste of the second paragraph. It matched with a story that ran a few days before on Deloitte’s corporate website. Then I checked a second blog posting by the same “author,” and it matched a story from former colleague Stacy Burling of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

I worked alongside a plagiarist once. Funny thing: we used to talk all the time about high-quality writing. When caught, he was fired. A few years later, he was hired as a second-chancer by another paper, where he got caught and fired again.

It’s sickness, a malady that needs treatment.

Or, one can do the opposite. The antidote to plagiarism is known as “the attribution.”

I wish I could conduct a seminar for the rest of the world with this message: anytime anybody wants to use anything from somebody else, all they have to do is attribute.

As in: “according to a recent story in The Philadelphia Inquirer by Stacy Burling.”

Avoiding plagiarism is also as easy as, well, not getting fired. When copying and pasting from other websites into notes or stories, always copy and paste the website URL address, too. Under this strategy, text cannot get copied without the attribution, and vice versa. It’s a fail-safe method so there are no accidents.

Other learning points for my imaginary world seminar:

  • Never copy large amounts of text without permission.
  • When linking to someone else’s work on the web, always provide a link back to the actual blog post, not a link to the publication’s main page.
  • Mention the name of the originating blog or publication and its author along with a link to that page.
  • Don’t tamper with the wording and meaning of someone whose work is quoted. Make your own points, not yours as part of theirs.
  • Don’t give readers permission to reprint the work of others with your name on it if you didn’t write it.

In the spirit of the subject, the above suggestions are adapted from business communications coach Nancy Ancowitz ( which I read in Jerry SimmonsTIPS for WRITERS newsletter in August 2010. Ancowitz’ book is called Self-Promotion for Introverts: The Quiet Guide to Getting Ahead.

See, world? That’s how it’s done. Not that hard.

Author Dave Lieber won second place in the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ 2012 general interest column contest for large newspapers. He’s “The Watchdog” columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
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