Don’t be an accidental plagiarist

In the strange world of “content creation,” freelance writers often see requests to “rewrite this article” or “write an article similar to this one,” with a link to an article that the customer didn’t create and doesn’t own. They border on requests for plagiarism and sometimes step over the line. Is this a request you can fulfill in good conscience?

I’m going to skip over the issues of legal liability here. That’s for lawyers. Whether you get sued or blacklisted or not, plagiarism is appropriating the work of other writers to make money for yourself. It’s wrong.

There’s blatant theft of people’s work, but some cases aren’t so clear. Nothing you write is completely independent of other people’s words. You’re going to repeat points which others have made and use arguments which have been made before. Even if you’re blazing a completely new trail, you have to put it into the context of previous thought. There’s a joke, “Stealing from one person is plagiarism. Stealing from ten is research.” It’s not just a matter of numbers, but there is a real difference between plagiarism and research.

Here are some of the factors that make a piece original and well-researched, rather than stolen:

  • • The design of the piece is yours. If you take an existing work and paraphrase it sentence by sentence, it’s plagiarism even if you change all the words. The outline and path of discussion need to be your own creation.
  • • You don’t just grab and rearrange ideas from a single source, unless you attribute them. Synthesizing ideas from different people shows some originality. If you’re going to be a disciple of one person, it’s simple courtesy to name the role model you’re drawing from.
  • • You attribute quotations. It’s legitimate to use quotes from other people, as long as they aren’t the main part of the article. Just let your readers know that they’re quotes and where they got them. Make sure the quotes are accurate. As George Washington said, “You can’t trust every supposed quotation you see on the Internet.”
  • • You don’t sound like someone else’s echo. No matter how much you admire another writer, your voice has to be your own. Being influenced is OK, but don’t be a bad clone.

Sometimes you have to turn down a request because you can’t ethically fulfill the requirements. Sometimes, though, the customer is too lazy to be more specific than “I want an article like this one.” If you can come up with a new take on the subject that’s in the same spirit as an existing piece, that’s fine.

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