Is Someone Plagiarizing Your Work?

Jan 21 22:00 2002 Michael Southon Print This Article

About two weeks ago I received an article ... ... ... my ... The title ... to the title of an article I wrote and whichwas ... in ... in May 199

About two weeks ago I received an article submission
that immediately attracted my attention. The title was
identical to the title of an article I wrote and which
was published in 'WebProNews' in May 1999.

"Probably just a coincidence",Guest Posting I thought to myself,
and kept reading. But the first paragraph stopped me
in my tracks. It was quite clearly plagiarized from my
article. As I kept reading I recognized sentence after
sentence that had been lifted from my article and then
modified slightly.

The whole article was plagiarized. I could hardly
believe it. As the English say, I was 'gob-smacked'.

What Is Plagiarism?

'Plagiarism' comes from the Latin word 'plagiarius', a
kidnapper. Here are two dictionary definitions of

'[to] take (the work or idea of someone else)
and pass it off as one's own' (Concise Oxford
Dictionary, Third Edition, 1999).

'to appropriate ideas, passages etc. from another
work or author' (Collins Dictionary of the English
Language, ed. P. Hanks 1979).

Plagiarism can be done in many ways, but the most
common technique is to paraphrase someone else's words.

Here's an example:


"And if you've matched the ezine to the product you're
selling, you've reached your target audience."

Plagiarized version:

"If you have correctly matched the ezine or newsletter
to the product you're selling, then you will have
reached your target audience."

As you can see, the plagiarist has simply taken the
original and then replaced the phrase 'you've matched'
with the phrase 'you have correctly matched', inserted
the words 'or newsletter', and replaced the word
'you've' with the words 'then you will have'.

Part of the reason that plagiarism is so rampant on
the Internet is that many people genuinely believe
that it's okay to take someone else's writing, make a
few changes, and then present it as their own.

Is Plagiarism a Crime?

As far as I know plagiarism is not a crime in most
countries, and this is probably because plagiarism is
so difficult to define. How many words does a
plagiarist have to substitute and rearrange before the
copied version ceases to be a copy of the original?

This is why plagiarism is much more difficult to deal
with than copyright theft. A copyright thief simply
steals your work, lock-stock-and-barrel. A plagiarist
steals your work and disguises it as their own.

But while plagiarism may not be a crime, it is heavily
sanctioned in professions that are based on the
written word. I know of one professor of sociology who
lost his job almost overnight because he plagiarized
someone else's work. And in journalism the
consequences of being exposed as a plagiarist would be
the same.

Unfortunately, internet plagiarism is flourishing.
There's now a whole industry that supplies college
students with 'model' term papers for the purpose of
plagiarism. Here are just some of the websites that
are part of this industry:

School Sucks

Other People's Papers

Evil House of Cheat

But the plagiarism industry has spawned another
industry: websites and software designed to detect
plagiarism. One such software was developed by ( and

This is how it works: the software makes a 'digital
fingerprint' of a submitted document using an
elaborate set of algorithms. That fingerprint is then
checked against a database that contains over 1
billion publicly-available web pages.
then produces an 'originality report' that gives the
user an index of how original the submitted paper was,
and whether it falls above or below the 'plagiarism

This software, however - while an excellent tool for
college professors - probably wouldn't help writers
find out if their work has been plagiarized.

What Can You Do About It?

The Internet is so vast, chances are you wouldn't know
if someone had plagiarized your work. I only discovered
that my work had been plagiarized because the 'author'
sent his plagiarized article to me for publication in
my own newsletter.

But if you do discover that someone has plagiarized
one of your articles, you could do what I did.

I immediately contacted the author of the 'article'
and requested that he email everyone to whom he had
sent the article, explaining that it was plagiarized,
and that they should on no account publish it. I added
that if he did not withdraw the article from
circulation I would contact his web host and the
moderators of any lists that distributed the article.

The author replied within a few hours and admitted
that the similarity between the 2 articles was "VERY
uncanny". He said he had no idea "how they could be so
similar". But after a few emails, he did withdraw the

In a way, it's a compliment when someone plagiarizes
your work: it means you're writing good stuff. But
that's little consolation. If you make your living
from writing on the Internet, plagiarism could be the
greatest threat to your livelihood.

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Michael Southon
Michael Southon

Michael Southon shows webmasters how to Tap
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