Why plagiarism doesn’t pay

word thiefHere are the plagiarists of Internet Town
With Ctrl+C and clattering keys
They prowl and creep when you’re asleep 
And take whatever they please.

Sounds good, right? They aren’t my words though: we lifted them from Allan Ahlberg’s Cops and Robbers, then made a couple of tweaks.

These days, pinching stuff from the internet is all the rage, simply because it’s (a) incredibly easy and (b) a short-cut to mountains of free web content.

Obviously, plagiarism is unethical. We all know that text or images taken from another source should be properly attributed, in a footnote or through ‘quote marks’. But ethics aside, plagiarism is simply bad business.

‘Ello ‘ello, what’s going on here?

Let’s say that you copy and paste a chunk of text from a website into your own report, press release or company brochure. It may look good. It may read well. But the basic fact is, people will notice. Stolen goods – in writing just as at a car-boot sale – stand out.

If they find your content via a search engine, they’ll immediately see that yours is not the only site to carry the text in question. If they’re editors and run plagiarism software (such as Turnitin or iThenticate), they’ll quickly see through your sleight-of-mouse.

Most importantly, copied text stands out to anyone who pays enough attention to your writing (and if people aren’t paying enough attention to your writing, you’ve got a whole other problem). Changes in tone, style, vocabulary and voice register with readers, even if they don’t realise it. It makes for a bumpy ride. It makes the reader less comfortable with your content. And it makes them less likely either to sympathise with you or believe you (or ‘you’).

OK, so you think again, and go to what we might call ‘level 2’ plagiarism. You rip off, but you re-write. You change maybe one word in ten, alter ‘cannot’ to ‘can’t’, cut out a handful of adverbs. Presto! ‘New’ content.

There are two problems here. Which of the two you encounter depends on how good a writer you are.

Problem one: the hybrid

In the first case, you wade in, thesaurus in hand, and make a terrible hash of the job. You lack the technical knowledge to amend the text appropriately (which is probably why you stole it in the first place).

A synonym in the wrong hands can be a dangerous thing – and the results are likely to both point up your obvious attempt to plagiarise and cause the reader great amusement/frustration.

I’ve encountered these weird hybrids in the wild many times. Let’s create one at random. Here’s the original text:

The potential loss on a short sale is theoretically unlimited in the event of an unlimited rise in the price of the instrument; however, in practice, the short seller will be required to post margin or collateral to cover losses, and any inability to do so on a timely basis would cause its broker or counterparty to liquidate the position.

That’s from Wikipedia’s page on ‘short-selling’, a financial concept chosen at random from the almost infinite number of topics about which I know nothing. We want to use this content in our report, but we don’t want anyone to know that we purloined it. Right – where’s that thesaurus?

The would-be slaughter on a dumpy auction is tentatively on tap in the event of an infinite augment in the consequences of the utensil …

Hmm. Perhaps this isn’t the best approach after all.

This example may seem far-fetched (it was done using MS Word’s ‘thesaurus’ tool, by the way), but I have come across real-life examples that are just as bizarre. It’s what comes of failing to show sufficient respect for the process of writing – of imagining that one word is just as good as another, that writing skills can be bluffed and technical know-how mimicked without consequence. The consequence is, of course, that the shortcomings you hoped to conceal by appropriating another’s work are laid bare. In the end, it undermines your reputation, rather than enhancing it.

In this case, shortcuts just won’t cut it. Expertise is what you need, and if you don’t have it yourself, you’re better off buying it in than trying to rip it off.

Problem two: the long shortcut

And this is where the second problem comes in. Perhaps you do have the knowledge to make the necessary amendments without turning the content into a laughing stock. Perhaps you know that ‘short-selling’ might be better replaced with ‘going short’ or ‘shorting’ than with ‘dumpy auction’. Clever you! But then in that case, why are you copying content in the first place?

More often than not you’ll find that, by the time you’ve re-worked a sentence to eliminate every trace of the original, you’ve used just as much time and effort as if you’d bitten the bullet and written it yourself. It reminds me of the story of the boy who tried to cheat in his exams by writing the answers on his shirt cuff. By the time he’d done that, he’d memorised them all anyway.

This is a confidence issue. You have to remember that, very often, if you’re good enough to fake it, you’re good enough to do it for real.

Ultimately, even if you’re prepared to ruthlessly jettison what they taught you at school about stealing being wrong, it’s still seldom a good idea. If you do it badly, you’ll get caught – and if you do it well enough not to get caught, it probably wasn’t worth doing it in the first place.

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