Redefining Plagiarism

The following is one of many lessons the Missouri School of Journalism drills into its students heads: DO NOT PLAGIARIZE. But what exactly falls under that umbrella?

Roy Peter Clark, an employee at the Poynter Institute, published an essay recently addressing this topic. He believes that “(i)t is time to decriminalize certain practices now described under the rubric of plagiarism.” He borrows from four books to create a list of ten actions that do not qualify as plagiarism. Below is his list, quoted exactly as he writes it in the essay (notice my clear and direct citation?):

  1. The so-called act of “self-plagiarism” is not plagiarism.
  2. So called “patch writing” – as long as it credit sources – is not plagiarism.
  3. Inadequate paraphrasing of a credited source is not plagiarism.
  4. Use of a clever or apt phrase – up to the level of the sentence – is not plagiarism as long as you thought of it independently, even if you find that others have used it before.
  5. Literary allusions – even a mosaic of esoteric ones – are NOT plagiarism.
  6. Boilerplate descriptions of news, history, or background are not plagiarism
  7. Ghost writing is not plagiarism.
  8. Writing for genres – such as the legal brief or the sermon – in which there is a long traditional of borrowing without attribution is not plagiarism.
  9. Copying from other writers in what are considered collaborative ventures – newsrooms, wire services, press releases, textbook authorship – is not plagiarism.
  10. Copying from or borrowing the general ideas and issues that are emerging as part of the zeitgeist is not plagiarism.

I tend to agree with these “ten commandments” – except for #9.

Clark explains it as such: “You are writing about drought conditions in Florida. You consult what we used to call the clips. You find that a colleague, Joe Blow, reported on the issue five years ago. A paragraph in that story describes the situation back then perfectly. With approval of your editor, you drop that graph into your story as background No problem.”

When I put myself in Joe Blow’s shoes, I would want credit for that work if it’s being taken verbatim and dropped into someone else’s story as though it is their own original content. I don’t think citing background information is superfluous if the writer of the new piece is using something someone else wrote word-for-word, without any changes.

Overall, I agree with Clark’s sentiment that distinctions must be made between “serious acts of literary theft…and trivial ones. Carelessness has been mislabeled as corruption. Clear norms of personal morality and professional ethics have been confused with standards and practices.” We can police plagiarism with random, routine filtering through plagiarism and detection software. Requiring writers to be able to provide editors with contact information for sources at any time, so that editors might verify information for themselves, also discourages plagiarism.

Without clear-cut guidelines, journalism students may unknowingly mis-step into career-ending theft.  I challenge J-School professors at Mizzou to specify and clarify what qualifies as plagiarism. If they outline exactly what is and isn’t stealing, students will learn how to work with integrity. That strong knowledge of journalistic principles will equip us to enter the workforce and make ethical decisions in our everyday practice of journalism.

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1 comment
  1. Thsnk you for your cogent summary of my essay. I hope it leads to discussion and debate at your school and many others. Cheers.

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