How to spot plagiarism – for editors

One of the many jobs of an editor is to be on the lookout for plagiarism. I don’t have a magic formula for spotting it, but I do have some tips that might help.

First off, what is plagiarism?

The dictionary definition goes like this:

“The practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own”

From an editing point of view, it most often means that a text, or a piece of text, have been copied verbatim from someone else: in other words, they were not written by the person who claims to have written them.

What happens if plagiarism is committed?

An article on infojustice.net by Denise Nicholson says that “plagiarism in essence is not a criminal offence, but it is unlawful if an author or creator’s intellectual property rights are infringed”. A publication which carries plagiarised material could be sued by the copyright holder – and of course copying the work of other without crediting them is just plain unethical. In the academic world, plagiarism is seen as a violation of academic integrity, Nicholson says.

Technical solutions

It’s possible to use software to scan a text for plagiarism. I’m a member of the Professional Editor’s Guild and the question of such software is raised often. South African universities apparently sometimes require students to run their texts through such applications.

Article with a starter list of such applications (written from the point of view of not messing with your SEO on search engines)

How I do it

As a writer, this is really simple: I write my own content, and if I use content from someone else I give full credit (as I did in the section on legal implications above).

As an editor, things are not quite so easy. My one rule of thumb, though, is to have my eye and internal ear do a constant scan for changes in tone or voice. By that I mean that there’s generally a particular way that a writer will phrase things, which you register as you go through a text. When there is an abrupt change in that way of phrasing things, you are probably looking at plagiarised content.

Example

See if you can spot the plagiarism in this example (which I have constructed from the texts of two different writers – credit given at the end):

Quinton de Kock says he is “happy” to take a knee to show his support in the fight against racism after talks with the Cricket South Africa (CSA) board.
The Proteas star has been the centre of controversy since he pulled out of Tuesday’s T20 World Cup clash against the West Indies, refusing to follow the instruction from CSA that came on the morning of the match that all players should take a knee before the first ball.
In a statement, he intimated that his early resistance was motivated by a libertarian view that no organisation, even one representing a nation on a sports field, has the right to dictate to its employees how they must behave.
He ended the statement by saying that, if picked, he would be happy to play for his country again.

The main body of the story is a straight news report on South Africa’s News24. The very different plagiarised third paragraph is from a report on the same issue in the Guardian.

How to test if something is plagiarised?

Take one full sentence in the suspect bit of text. Paste it into Google – almost always, another article with that exact text will appear. This is what I got when I pasted “In a statement, he intimated that his early resistance was motivated by a libertarian view that no organisation, even one representing a nation on a sports field, has the right to dictate to its employees how they must behave” into Google:

screenshot

Google search result

“Listening” to a text in this way is a skill developed over time. I’d urge upcoming editors to add it to their list of “things to do” when reading a text, and to use the Google search option often. It really helps to hone your instincts on this issue.

 

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Main picture: Girl with red hat, Unsplash

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