If you hire freelance writers or have in-house staff create content for you, this article will likely speak to you.
A potential problem when you hire writers is plagiarism.
When plagiarism occurs, everybody involved loses. Not just the victim whose work and ideas had been stolen, but also the writer committing it, the publisher who hired or sponsored that writer, and even the reader of the plagiarized work.
I’m writing this article because I’ve had issues with writers plagiarizing in the past, and I want to pass some insights and lessons that may help guard against it, even when it isn’t intentional.
Sometimes it comes from a lack of awareness. For example, there have been cases where writers have just copied large passages from someone else’s work and thought it was fine because they cited the source.
First, let’s go through some definitions of what plagiarism actually is. Then we’ll address plagiarism as not only an ethical issue, but also a cultural one. Finally, we’ll go through some steps to prevent plagiarism when you work with writers, whether they are in-house or extensions of your team.
What Is Plagiarism?
Plagiarism is the act of passing someone else’s work, data, research, and insights as your own without giving proper credit (Oxford, 2022). With all forms of plagiarism, whether intentional or not, the lack of sources, references, or citations equals theft of ideas, not just words.
Nevertheless, it’s important to understand that an isolated instance of plagiarism may not have been deliberate or intentional. Perhaps the writer didn’t know that they were supposed to cite a source, or how to make a proper citation, or more likely, thought that the material was already common knowledge (more on this later).
Plus, there’s nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from other people’s work or even adding to them. Writers do this all the time. But it’s another thing to pass off someone else’s work as our own.
There are mainly two variations of plagiarism:
The most outright and blatant form of plagiarism is verbatim copying of sentences and even entire passages without giving due credit to where those originated from. This is almost certainly intentional and the easiest to catch.
However, the definition of plagiarism does not have to be confined only to verbatim copying of passages; there are more subtle forms such as structural plagiarism, which I define below.
As some would call “outline plagiarism,” this happens when the order or arrangement of ideas – hence, the structure – has been copied from one source to another without any sort of citation or credit. The body itself may use different words and sentences, but the subheadings – and their order – may be almost identical to another source, in which case would still be plagiarism if said source was not cited at all.
Note that although Rutgers University defines structural plagiarism as “paraphrasing someone else's words by changing sentence structure or word choice, or paraphrasing while maintaining the original sentence structure without citation” (Rutgers, 2020) – the way I personally define structural plagiarism is a little bit different in that it has more to do with outlines, content structure, and subheadings rather than the word choice or sentences themselves.
What separates “common knowledge” from plagiarism?
Unfortunately, there is no clear distinction between what is considered common knowledge versus something that needs to be cited.
Generally speaking, if a fact can be found in at least five reputable sources, then it may be considered common knowledge. If a reader can accept a fact in a passage without having to look it up because most people already know it, then it can also be considered common knowledge. To err on the safe side, a writer should cite a source anytime there is any doubt whatsoever about whether what they are writing is common knowledge.
Statistics, research findings, and data-driven insights should almost always be cited. Here’s some further reading to explore common knowledge in relation to plagiarism, including some examples (Scribbr, 2018).
What happens when plagiarism gets caught
When plagiarism occurs and gets caught, there isn’t only one person affected by it. What really happens is a domino effect that can be extremely damaging.
First comes reputational damage, not only to the offending writer, but also to the publisher who distributed the plagiarized work. While it calls into question their professional integrity, the damaging effects don’t stop there.
Plagiarism may lead to lost revenue for the publisher and the individual who authored the original work. There may also be possible legal issues associated with copyright infringement particularly for the most blatant cases of verbatim plagiarism.
Not Only Is Plagiarism Cheating, But It’s Also a Cultural Issue
At this point, one might ask: Why would a writer commit plagiarism?
I’ve asked myself this question many times.
Assuming it was intentional, perhaps it could be a combination of laziness and poor work ethic when it comes to listing all references and citing sources properly. This could also be the end result of lack of scruples and being inconsiderate towards whomever authored the original work in their own attempt to “get ahead.”
Or maybe it could be due to desperation, procrastination, or poor planning – as we see with a few college students here and there cobbling together last-minute research papers using someone else’s work trying to get a passing grade.
These could all be reasons a writer would commit plagiarism, but I think we’re only scratching the surface here. I personally believe it goes deeper than this. Therefore, I posit that:
Plagiarism reflects an underlying cultural issue.
To explain this, I’ll first differentiate between writers who plagiarize and those who don’t. Then I’ll examine the culture of writers who plagiarize.
Many writers actually take pride in their work and they feel copying other people’s work is beneath them. They want their work to be their own creation and keep it fully original. So they don’t plagiarize other people’s work, and always cite references when they use work that isn't their own and isn’t considered common knowledge.
However, some writers who plagiarize may not actually see it that way. As odd as this may sound, they may perceive copying other people’s work without proper credit as a rational thing to do – because they deem that work “universal knowledge” rather than attributed to a particular individual or organization. So they may not even see anything wrong with it. These views may be more commonly held outside of the West, particularly in collectivist cultures (Turnitin, 2017).
Only when they enter a more individualistic culture, particularly in America or Europe, perhaps as university students studying abroad, would they run afoul of anti-plagiarism sentiment widely held among Western academics.
Although there are exceptions, the above is an example of a well-intentioned writer who most likely had never been taught – culturally – that plagiarism is wrong, what exactly constitutes plagiarism versus what is common (universal) knowledge, and how to cite sources properly.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are more than a few writers who truly are unscrupulous and know full well what they’re doing is wrong while committing plagiarism. These writers likely never had a culture of work ethic and respect for other people’s hard work instilled within them, whether through themselves, their parents, or their academic environment.
Either way, on both ends of the above spectrum and everything in between, it comes down to culture. So if we want to prevent plagiarism, we need to start by looking at the culture around the writer in question – both the writer’s own cultural upbringing and the culture surrounding that writer in the present time.
How to Prevent Plagiarism When Working With Writers
Set the culture
Because plagiarism is a cultural issue, setting the right culture with preventing plagiarism in mind is the single most important thing you can do. If there is only one thing to take away from this article, let it be this: nothing else you do will work unless you first frame the culture.
The best way to do this is to enact a clear zero-tolerance policy against plagiarism, both verbatim and structural, whether it is intentional or not. All writers working with you need to be absolutely clear that plagiarism is not tolerated, regardless of their own cultural upbringing. Your writers need to:
- Follow clear content guidelines
- Know how to cite sources properly
- Understand what is and what isn’t plagiarism
There may be a fine line between common knowledge and plagiarism. So it is important to instill the culture of ‘when in doubt, cite’. This means, in other words, if they aren’t sure whether a piece of content is common knowledge, you want to teach your writers to think in terms of ‘if I have to ask whether I should include a citation, then I most certainly should do so’.
This can also be included in the content guidelines, as we discuss below.
Create clear content guidelines
Having content guidelines with rules may sound like corporate policy that we like to roll our eyes at, but they are there for a reason.
Content guidelines can contain your rules about formatting, deadlines, research methods, expectations, and everything in between, including checking for plagiarism. How you set your guidelines and how detailed they are is up to you, but it’s important that they are clear, easy to understand, and straightforward to follow.
Your guidelines and policies must also contain consequences for not adhering to them, which in the case of plagiarism, may include instant dismissal, non-payment, and depublishing of the plagiarized work.
Hire writers who take pride in their work
Setting the culture and clear content guidelines go a long way, but when you bring writers to create content, you’ll want to select for the ones who take pride in their work. Simple work ethic isn’t enough because when multiple projects get crunched into a similar deadline, the pressure on them builds – and the higher the pressure, the greater the temptation becomes to take shortcuts.
Find writers who think copying other people’s ideas is beneath them. Writers who place high value on research, creativity, and critical thinking, are the least likely to commit plagiarism because not only do they know it’s unethical, but also violates their personal sense of originality, accomplishment, and accountability. Hiring these writers is one of the most critical steps in setting the culture in your team or organization.
You’ll also want to work with writers that have subject matter expertise in your area. If not, they should be willing to interview others to get insights from experts. Fortunately, there are tools that make this very easy: Help a Reporter and Help a B2B Writer.
When finding and hiring writers, you’ll want to screen carefully and have multiple trials, or you may have a probationary period of a month or two. There have been cases where a writer submits the best work in the beginning of an engagement, then the quality of the work slips over time once the writer gets too comfortable. If you catch any kind of plagiarism, letting the writer go immediately and explaining all the reasons for doing so is likely the best thing to do for everyone.
Have multiple checks against plagiarism
Many use online plagiarism checkers such as Grammarly and Copyscape, but we shouldn’t rely solely on those because they’re not perfect. While they can easily catch many instances of verbatim plagiarism, they can just as easily miss structural plagiarism where the structure has been copied but the body itself was paraphrased. Plus, if you also get hits on what appears to be plagiarism, these may turn out to be false positives – i.e. direct quotes that had already been cited properly.
Again, it’s important to create and adhere to clear guidelines on how to do research and cite sources. There are different ways to cite sources, and Turnitin has a simple and easy to read guide on how to do so.
Both the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Style Book have specific citation methods. There are also free citation generators online. Sometimes it can be a simple matter of including a hyperlink to an original source within some anchor text, which may be enough to avoid an accusation of plagiarism in many cases. Whichever citation method you choose, it’s important to consistently stick with it.
Finally, you can hire an editor or have another writer on your team provide a second set of eyes on the piece. What one writer may miss due to being too close to their own work can be easily picked up by another writer or editor. However, this can get prohibitive if you need to publish hundreds pieces of content per year, in which case you need a larger team with a strong culture and solid process supported by clear content guidelines.
There is no 100% foolproof method to prevent plagiarism. But with this guide and by approaching it as a cultural issue, you can find writers who take pride in their work and are simultaneously respectful of other people’s work.
With the right team and ethical writers, you can build a culture in your organization where plagiarism is highly unlikely to occur, and if it does, you can catch most of these occurrences long before the content gets published.
University of Oxford. (n.d.). Plagiarism. University of Oxford. Retrieved January 18, 2022, from https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/academic/guidance/skills/plagiarism
Ireton, T. (2020). Ru citing? Solutions & Strategies for avoiding plagiarism: Plagiarism of structure. Research Guides. Retrieved from https://libguides.rutgers.edu/c.php?g=622731&p=4395801
McCombes, S. (2021, November 8). Common knowledge: To cite or not to cite? Scribbr. Retrieved from https://www.scribbr.com/plagiarism/common-knowledge
Campbell, A. (2022, January 18). Cultural differences in plagiarism. Turnitin. Retrieved from https://www.turnitin.com/blog/cultural-differences-in-plagiarism
Turnitin. (2017, June 17). How do I cite sources? Plagiarism.org RSS. Retrieved from https://www.plagiarism.org/article/how-do-i-cite-sources