One of the many jobs of an editor is to be on the lookout for plagiarism. I don’t have a magic formula for spotting it, but I do have some tips that might help.

First off, what is plagiarism?

The dictionary definition goes like this:

‘The practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.’

 From an editing point of view, it most often means that text has been copied verbatim from someone else: in other words, they were not written by the person who claims to have written them.

What happens if plagiarism is committed?

An article on by Denise Nicholson says that ‘plagiarism in essence is not a criminal offence, but it is unlawful if an author or creator’s intellectual property rights are infringed’. A publication that carries plagiarised material could be sued by the copyright holder and, of course, copying the work of other people without crediting them is just plain unethical. In the academic world, plagiarism is seen as a violation of academic integrity, Nicholson says.

Technical solutions

It’s possible to use software to scan a text for plagiarism. PEG members often raise questions about such software. Seemingly, South African universities sometimes require students to run their texts through such applications. Here is a list of possible tech solutions that you could use.

How I detect plagiarism

As a writer, this is really simple: I write my own content and if I use content from someone else, I give them full credit (as I did in the section on legal implications above, What happens if plagiarism is committed?).

My one rule of thumb is to have my eye and internal ear do a constant scan for changes in tone or voice. By that I mean that there’s generally a particular way that a writer will phrase things, which you register as you go through a text. When there is an abrupt change in that way of phrasing things, you are probably looking at plagiarised content.


See if you can spot the plagiarism in this example (which I have constructed from the texts of two different writers – credit given at the end):

Quinton de Kock says he is ‘happy’ to take a knee to show his support in the fight against racism after talks with the Cricket South Africa (CSA) board.

The Proteas star has been the centre of controversy since he pulled out of Tuesday’s T20 World Cup clash against the West Indies, refusing to follow the instruction from CSA that came on the morning of the match that all players should take a knee before the first ball.
In a statement, he intimated that his early resistance was motivated by a libertarian view that no organisation, even one representing a nation on a sports field, has the right to dictate to its employees how they must behave.

He ended the statement by saying that, if picked, he would be happy to play for his country again.

The main body of the story is a news report on South Africa’s News24. The very different plagiarised third paragraph is from a report on the same issue in The Guardian.

How to test if something is plagiarised

Take one full sentence in the suspicious bit of text. Paste it into Google – almost always another article with that exact text will appear. This is what I got when I pasted, ‘In a statement, he intimated that his early resistance was motivated by a libertarian view that no organisation, even one representing a nation on a sports field, has the right to dictate to its employees how they must behave’ into Google:

Google search results

‘Listening’ to a text in this way is a skill developed over time. I’d urge upcoming editors to add it to their list of ‘things to do’ when reading a text, and to use the Google search option often. It really helps to hone your instincts on this issue.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PEG.

About Renee Moodie

Renee Moodie is a senior journalist who draws on decades of print and online experience to offer a range of writing, editing, training and consultancy services. She worked as a reporter for the Cape Times before moving into sub-editing at the Cape Argus and then to online journalism at Independent Online, eventually becoming Deputy Editor. After leaving Independent Media, she opened Safe Hands Writing & Editing, a communications business with clients in online news, publishing, academia and the corporate sector.

About PEG

The Professional Editors’ Guild (PEG) is a non-profit company (NPC) in South Africa. Since moving to online activities in March 2020, PEG has been able to offer members across South Africa, and internationally, access to an extensive online webinar programme. Continuing professional development remains a key offering and the first PEG Accreditation Test was administered in August 2020 to benchmark excellence in the field of editing.