Plagiarism on the grand scale has been made more and more tempting and easy for lazy [writers] by people who provide whole essays on all manner of subjects on the web. – Manning Murphy (2019)
To understand the nature of plagiarism, it is useful to consider the origin of the word. The English word is derived from the Latin plagius, meaning ‘kidnapping’, that is, abducting or stealing someone’s child, by taking what you are not free to take (PASA 2007: 1). It is often defined as ‘taking and using as one’s own of the thoughts, writings, or inventions of another’ without giving credit to the originator; but it could also apply equally to visual elements such as illustrations, photographs and graphics.
Copyright infringement vs plagiarism
Plagiarism should be dealt with as an ethical aspect of writing and publishing. It and copyright infringement are often confused. But while there is some overlap, copyright should be viewed as an invasion of private ownership rights, or of an author’s moral right to be credited for their original work, whereas plagiarism is usually the willful deception of the reader (PASA 2007: 2).
Until the late 20th century, the focus of most publishers, authors and copy editors was on copyright per se and any infringements of copyright law. However, since the advent of the internet and the greater accessibility of information together with the ease of copying and pasting from sources it has engendered, the more widespread problem of plagiarism – whether inadvertent or intentional – has reared its head. This possibly stems partly from ignorance of the law of copyright (which in itself tends to be found wanting for vagueness and complexity) but also from the misguided belief that any and all material published on websites is in the public domain and therefore freely available for use without acknowledgement. This is to misunderstand the spirit and intent behind the concepts of copyright and intellectual property (IP): that is, copyright exists to protect authors’ IP that takes the form of an expression of an idea (not the idea itself). IP includes trademarks, designs and patents, so permission must first be obtained to use any of these in publications. Understandably, much has been written recently about this pervasive problem, particularly in the sphere of academic writing.
As Einsohn and Schwartz (2019: 451; see also PASA 2007: 1–2) point out, plagiarism per se is not a criminal or a civil offence, but it becomes illegal when it infringes copyright. It also becomes an ethical violation when an academic presents a paper or a thesis giving the impression that it is the product of their own original ideas or writing when that is not entirely so. This is because it is ‘an appropriation of others’ creative or intellectual labor and a betrayal of readers’ trust that the content is the author’s own work’ (2019: 451).
What is plagiarism?
However, the first question we have to ask is: What is plagiarism? The answer should be of considerable interest to professional copy editors. Plagiarism is (PLC Melbourne 2000; The Learning Centre 2004, cited in Murphy 2011):
using other peoples’ [sic] words and ideas without clearly acknowledging the source of the information. … using the words or ideas of others and presenting them as your own. Plagiarism is a type of intellectual theft. It can take many forms, from deliberate cheating to accidentally copying from a source without acknowledgment.
This makes plagiarism a potentially serious multiple offence for which both the writer and the publisher can be sued, or the academic student writer can be disqualified.
Since the original writer is not acknowledged when a writer passes their work off as their own, it is effectively the theft of another’s IP; if that IP is copyright protected, then the act of plagiarism is also a breach of copyright law (plagiarism may also occur where copyright protection has lapsed or the original work is in the public domain); and, thirdly, if the information is passed off as the writer’s own when it is not, that act contains an element of deceit and therefore constitutes fraud (PASA, 2011).
Examples of plagiarism in academia
Among the forms plagiarism may take at the academic level, ‘whether the result of naiveté, carelessness, indolence, or deliberate deception’ (Einsohn & Schwartz, 2019: 451), are:
- Buying a paper or essay from a research service or an online paper-mill;
- Handing in another person’s work with or without the writer or creator’s permission;
- Copying an entire source and presenting it as one’s own;
- Copying sections from a source without quotation marks or appropriate attribution – effectively the theft of original wording;
- Paraphrasing material from a source with only a few superficial changes to the original wording, without appropriate acknowledgement;
- Consulting and not attributing secondary sources to find and cite primary sources as though the author had consulted them directly (Einsohn & Schwartz, 2019: 451; PLC Melbourne 2000: 30).
But such forms of plagiarism are not limited to academia: they can, and do, occur everywhere.
Copy editors and plagiarism
Although plagiarism is more the prime responsibility of the writer, publishers of journals and books often depend upon professional competent copy editors to play the role of watchdog in detecting occurrences of plagiarism and breach of copyright, even inadvertently, and to know when to point out where permission to use copyrighted material (whether visual or verbal) is required (Einsohn & Schwartz 2019: 452; PASA 2007: 4). This task is usually written into a copy editor’s brief. In view of the preceding text on plagiarism and copyright, both writers and copy editors should be encouraged to err on the side of caution when considering whether a breach of either plagiarism or copyright, or both, has been committed (PASA 2007: 4).
In order to detect transgressions, the copy editor should be on the lookout for changes in writing style from what is clearly the writer’s own natural style to that of others. Often the difference is quite marked. The copy editor should note such lapses from the writer’s own style and ask the following questions about them:
- Has the writer acknowledged the source from which the text was taken? If not, this should be noted and it should be drawn to the client or publisher’s attention. In addition, the copy editor may run the passage through plagiarism-detection software (such as Turnitin, Duplichecker, Ithenticate and Plagiarism) in order to verify instances of plagiarism by finding hard evidence. Checking for plagiarism in student papers, theses and dissertations has become standard practice at many higher education institutions (Shober, 2011: 115–117).
- If the writer has quoted another source and acknowledged it correctly, how extensively have they ‘borrowed’ from the source? Is it little enough for ‘fair dealing’ to apply (in other words, a permissible ‘fair’ number of words or thoughts borrowed from another source)? Or have extensive passages been lifted from another source (even if acknowledged)?
- Even if such another source has been acknowledged, if the borrowings are more extensive than what is considered ‘fair dealing’, must the copyright holder’s permission be sought to reproduce their text? The answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’, and the client or publisher should be informed of this.
- Does even paraphrasing another writer’s words (or adapting another’s drawings or graphics) require acknowledgement of the source from which the ideas or concepts were obtained? Again, an unequivocal ‘yes’, and permission will need to be sought from the copyright holder if the original text in what has been paraphrased is substantial (Turabian, 2013: 136).
Nowadays, it is so easy to copy and paste text from websites and ebooks that many writers either give no thought to the ‘crime’ they are committing (stealing others’ IP and passing it off as their own) or consider anything published on the internet to be in the ‘public domain’ and therefore not needing acknowledgement. In both cases, however, a writer’s thinking is erroneous and likely to land them in trouble once the copyright holder of such borrowed text becomes aware that their published work is receiving little or no acknowledgement. If you read the fine print on most websites carefully, you will find a privacy statement, copyright information or other material that prevents copying more than once for personal reference purposes only (Murphy 2019: 32–33).
Artificial intelligence and plagiarism
Undoubtedly the most extreme and wilfully dishonest form of plagiarism – and perhaps the most difficult to detect – is that made possible by artificial intelligence (AI) in the form of chatbots such as ChatGPT, which produce text in a register appropriate to a particular medium, among other deceits. Another is DeepL Write, a tool that claims to correct mistakes, rephrase sentences and improve writing. The plagiaristic practice takes the form of students using AI to evade plagiarism software in order to cheat in academic papers and exams with quick and credible academic writing that is not the product of their thinking and efforts but is instead churned out convincingly by AI software such as ChatGPT. This gives an entirely false impression of the student’s ability as a writer.
A large part of the problem with text produced in this artificial manner is that while the detection software, such as GPTZero, is able to identify existing iterations as artificially generated, the bots adapt at such a rapid rate that no sooner has the software detected evidence of such an intervention and users logged onto them than the bots generate human feedback to improve their language filters, both implicitly and explicitly. And usually the synthetic text additions are generated to fool programs such as GPTZero. A problem identified with detectors such as GPTZero, though, is that they do not necessarily work well with essays written by good writers – falsely flagging such essays as written by AI. So, while the software could be a useful tool for professors, it could also be dangerous if too much trust is placed in its ability to root out AI-generated work, leading to a large number of false flags.
Cassidy, C 2023. GPTZero can root out text composed by the controversial AI bot, but users cite mixed results. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2023/jan/12/college-student-claims-app-can-detect-essays-written-by-chatbot-chatgpt
DeepL Write 2023. https://www.deepl.com/write
Einsohn, A & Schwartz, M 2019. The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A guide for book publishing and corporate communications. University of California Press.
Manning Murphy, E 2011. Working words. Canberra: Canberra Society of Editors.
Manning Murphy, E 2019. Working words. 2nd edition. Canberra: Lacuna.
The Learning Centre, University of New South Wales 2004. Avoiding plagiarism – What is plagiarism? https://www.lc.unsw.edu.au/onlib/plag.html
Presbyterian Ladies College, Melbourne 2000. Plagiarism. www.plc.vic.edu.au/Library/plag.html
Publishers’ Association of South Africa (PASA) 2007. Plagiarism: An introduction for publishers, authors and editors. Discussion document. Cape Town: Publishers’ Association of South Africa.
Shober, D 2011. Writing English with style Pretoria: JL van Schaik
Turabian, KL 2013. A manual for writers of research papers, theses, and dissertations. Chicago style for students and researchers. University of Chicago Press.