Journalism’s first commandment? Thou shall not steal.

In practice, however, the rule is more complex than it sounds. Here’s how you can avoid the whispers and traps of plagiarism.

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

One of the first lessons drilled into your head as a journalist is that plagiarism is bad. Like really bad. It is essentially the journalism equivalent of armed robbery — Perhaps even worse than passing off fiction and inaccuracies as immaculate truth, because at least the lies are your own. Yet, we live in a society that encourages it.

Our university libraries are filled with graduate theses that are replicas of themselves. Why should students bother to understand their courses when essays and term papers can simply be cloned from web pages? Lecturers themselves give out notes signed with their names but stolen from foreign authors. Sometimes, they sell these notes and call them handouts. Cover letters and statements of purpose are often knockoffs. And then a lot of freelancing platforms thrive today because people want to pay others to write personal and college essays for them. So when people use plagiarism checkers, it is not just because they want to be absolutely sure no one else has written what they’ve come up with; it is only a step in a sophisticated criminal plot.

One cannot expect journalists raised in such an environment to be immediately disabused of their wrong notions on copyright and plagiarism.

But what do we even mean by plagiarism? It’s simple.

Plagiarism is the practice of taking credit for someone else’s words or ideas. It’s an act of intellectual dishonesty.

Olivia Valdes (2019), ThoughtCo.

If I had reproduced that definition in this article without crediting the author, I would have been guilty of plagiarising. And it’s not just words, you can plagiarise artworks or songs or clothing designs or even brands. If you start a company whose name or logo shares too much semblance with that of an existing company, especially a competitor, it is known as passing off and it’s a civil wrong that can lead to litigation.

There are exceptions to the rule though. It is understood that laws, for example, can’t be plagiarised. This is because they evolve from one another until they achieve the best versions of themselves. And if you as a legislative chamber try to paraphrase too much, you lose the substance of the law. It becomes an exercise in linguistic tightrope walking rather than serve the purpose of improving society.

Remember the scandal about Nigeria’s House of Representatives copying verbatim from Singaporean legislation and the speaker’s response?

Anyway, words aren’t just words. They contain the signature of whoever writes or speaks them, especially when they are products of creative thought. So if you like them so much you want to reuse them in the same order or having the same meat, then — ethically — you have to let people know you are borrowing from the original thinker and writer/speaker of those words. Otherwise, you are stealing.

Every writer who agrees that writing is hard work will see the logic here. And every writer should agree. That’s why writers are the poster people for depression. If writing comes easy for you, perhaps you’re a prophet who’s only recording what his god tells him (and even that doesn’t come easy, I would think) or you’re writing crap. Scratch that. To write crap, whether deliberately or innocently, is tough too. So the premise stands.

It doesn’t matter if all you’re plagiarising is one good line. It doesn’t matter if you’re stealing from a seemingly authorless article like an encyclopaedia/dictionary entry or a press statement. Your victim being an orphan doesn’t make you kidnapping them any less egregious.

Here’s an example I used during a recent class. The first paragraph is the direct quote. The second contains plagiarised lines, and the third doesn’t. (Please note that while Hauwa S.N. is a real person, she is not Head of Displacement at the UN; not yet. This is for academic purposes only.)

Plagiarism can be direct: when you lift somebody’s lines word for word without shame and airdrop them into your article.

It can be paraphrased, such that you reword the lines, but the message isn’t one you can take ownership of regardless. If a newspaper exclusively reports that aliens have overrun a military base and you report the same thing without independent access to the information and without crediting the paper, you are still stealing. Another instance is where you paraphrase a lengthy article, so your version winds up as a merely reworded version of the same thing.

We should understand that plagiarism is not always intentional. People genuinely make mistakes sometimes. They forget to document their source. They forget to ascribe. They forget to hyperlink. And so on.

By the way, while ‘plagiarising’ yourself (lifting from your past publications) may not be wrong, I’d still really advise against it. Why, it’s lazy journalism.

What happens if you plagiarise?

One, you or your platform can be sued if you’re found to violate another person’s copyright.

Second, it constitutes professional misconduct and this could mean the end of your career as a journalist considering no serious newsroom would want to work with you. Oftentimes, all it takes to go from ‘terrific’ to ‘terrible’, from ‘he writes well’ to ‘well, he writes’ … all it takes to lose all credibility is one error.

Third, do you really want to be responsible for what someone else has written? Are you sure they got their facts right? Wouldn’t it just be easier to credit?

So, how can you avoid this career nemesis?

Plagiarism is almost inevitable if you do not understand what you are reading. You see a bunch of words that make no sense. You need to report it and you’re on a tight deadline. Your editor has sent you two reminders already and is expecting you to file any minute now. So what do you do? You papier-mâché the thing and hope nobody notices. Instead of that, I recommend you make more effort to understand the material, verify the claims made, and then reproduce it in your own words. You can’t be a good writer if you’re not first a good reader.

Second, resist the urge to copy and paste. I know computers have made it so easy with the Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V commands, but the less of that you do, the better. Limit it to quotes only, and don’t even have so many of those. When you do have direct quotes, do not forget to add quotation marks.

Third, prioritise originality over word count. I’ve never seen a journalism award for the lengthiest story of the year. In fact, many awards have word limits, some so short that you will struggle to find a story that fits if you’re always writing novel-length pieces. So, don’t bother trying to stand out through how many words you write. Focus on the quality and freshness of those words.

Fourth, consult multiple materials. You’re more tempted to plagiarise when all you’re working with is one press statement or some other article. You get more ideas from reading broadly.

Also, you should always include links to your source materials in your rough draft during research. This makes sure you’re not running into any difficulty getting those URLs when you need them.

If you have any doubts at all, you should check your draft for possible plagiarism before turning it in. You can verify using inverted commas in a Google search or you could try other plagiarism checkers like Grammarly, Duplichecker, and Quetext. Simply Google ‘free plagiarism checker’ and you’ll see lots of options. Many of them do not charge if you don’t go beyond about 1,000 words at a time — which is more than enough.

My final piece of advice is that you must believe there are a thousand ways to say the same thing. You won’t have to copy if you know you can simply restate the fact differently. Words are limitless; the only limit is you.

At the end of the day, you can only escape the trap of plagiarism if you consider it a serious enough sin. As you know, ‘the wages of sin is death.’ Innovate or die. Plagiarise and die. They’re both sides of the same coin; be careful how you toss it.

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