Drawing the line between innovation and thievery, and discussing the grey areas
| Plagiarism is taken rather seriously these days. Even in school, I was required to sign a paper by my history teacher, saying that I would not plagiarize on my research report. The consequences would be a 0 on my grade. My teacher had even downloaded a plagiarism app to run all of our writings through. It forced me to take extra precaution in making certain that the words I was writing were my own.
However, what exactly is plagiarism? On the other side of the coin, what defines something as original? When I first asked myself these questions, my response was to see what the dictionary had to say. The Thorndike Barnhart Intermediate dictionary says this on plagiarism: "plagiarize - take and use as one's own (the thoughts, writings, etc. of another), especially to take and use (a passage, plot, etc.) from the work of another writer." It also says something on plagiarism's antonym: "original - ...4 not copied, imitated, or translated from something else."
Here are some points I have taken about plagiarism upon reading those entries: (1) Plagiarism is intentional, (2) ideas can be plagiarized, and (3) there are many grey areas. Of course, we could gather much more than that, but for the purpose of this composition, we will limit our subject. We can, however, go in depth for each of these points.
(1) Plagiarism is intentional. It would be very difficult for you to accidentally write down exactly what someone else also wrote, verbatim. There are hundreds of ways to express a single idea, so if you are plagiarizing, then you are either doing it on purpose, or you plagiarized by writing down facts and ideas from outside sources exactly the way they wrote them because you don't really understand what plagiarism is. If you are not referencing other materials for your composition, then do not worry about plagiarism. Chances are high that you are not doing it.
(2) Ideas can be plagiarized. This is sort of a grey area, so bear with me. It may not be verbatim, but if you use someone else's idea exactly the way they used it, and treat it as your own, then you are committing plagiarism. However, do not be mislead. You are not plagiarizing if you learn from someone else's idea, and modify it to make it your own. Nobody suddenly got the idea to invent the iPhone. I assure you that most of modern technology are improvements of earlier versions. Writing can be the same way. If I read a composition I might really like how they outlined their paper. If I used the exact same outline and used it for my paper, then I would be plagiarizing their idea, even if I worded my paper differently. However, if I read a paper on plagiarism, and the author talked about the dangers of plagiarism in their composition, it would be okay for me to write a different paragraph on the dangers of plagiarism for my paper, and even add some of my own ideas. I am taking someone else's idea and building on it or modifying it to make it my own. This is okay.
(3) There are many grey areas. When it all boils down, however, I think the author should strive to be original as possible. Among all the writings and compositions that have been constructed in the history of time, chances are your idea is not the first one, but that should not stop you from trying! We should strive to do everything to the best of our ability, even if we know it will be imperfect or not completely original. Just be as original as you possibly can be. "...there is nothing new under the sun." ~ Ecclesiastes 1:9
Personally, I avoid plagiarism by not referencing other materials before/during writing my paper, unless I find it necessary. If you do, I am not saying that you are in fault. You could read a composition on plagiarism, get some ideas, and write a paper on plagiarism. You wouldn't be plagiarizing, and you may even end up with a brilliant paper of your own! However, your paper will not be as original as it could be, and it may not even sound like the real you. It is not wrong to reference outside resources, but I do not for the purpose of originality. (I understand that research reports and similar compositions require you to reference outside materials.)
In conclusion, I believe that plagiarism and originality are not black and white. There are definitely areas where we can draw a fine, distinct line, but other areas will remain fuzzy, not matter how much we may argue. As to the grey areas, do not take my word for it. Decide what you think you is right. The writer should examine his intents when writing, and decide for himself whether what he is doing is correct or not. Regardless of what your views on plagiarism are, don't do it, and keep writing!
Featured in the "Noticing Newbies Newsletter (June 8, 2016)"