And Now a Few Notes on Plagiarism

Over at Poynter, Roy Peter Clark argues that “serious acts of literary theft have been mixed up with trivial ones. Carelessness has been mislabeled as corruption. Clear norms of personal morality and professional ethics have been confused with standards and practices.”

He’s writing, in part, against the backdrop of what Craig Silverman calls journalism’s Summer of Sin, which, in 2012 saw the Wall Street Journal, NPR, the Boston Globe, Fareed Zakaria and Jonah Lehrer among many others getting caught for plagiarizing.

Clark though thinks we’re oftentimes too quick to throw the P-word around, and doing so in many instances is like “shooting a fly with a bazooka”:

Too scrupulous an ethic on plagiarism will lead, I fear, to witch hunts. Plagiarism — along with its cousin fabrication — should be policed. The punishments for wrongdoers should be harsh. But the word plagiarism should be confined to clear-cut cases of literary and journalistic fraud.

So here are ten practices Clark believes are not plagiarism. Be sure to read through for his explanations of each:

  1. The so-called act of “self-plagiarism” is not plagiarism.
  2. So called “patch writing” — as long as it credits 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 tradition 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.

Yes, he says, there are ethical boundaries in the above, but they should be seen and treated as such, and not labelled with a Scarlet P.

Roy Peter Clark, Poynter. Why we should stop criminalizing practices that are confused with plagiarism.

And, yes, I structured this to push Clark’s point. — Michael

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