by Sherice Jacob
It’s a loaded question that doesn’t have a simple answer. In order to answer what plagiarism is, we have to take a deeper look at all of the nuances that add up to whether or not something is plagiarized.
With the advent of AI writing more and more human content, the effect of using large swaths of machine-produced content (accuracy aside) is a question that businesses, search engines, and professionals all have to ask themselves. At what point does using AI-generated content become plagiarism? Let’s take a closer look at how we can work to answer this question:
What is plagiarism?
Simply put, plagiarism is taking someone else’s ideas and claiming them as your own. Whether you do that by intentionally failing to cite the original author or simply forgetting to doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter where the stolen idea or content appears or whether it was published or not.
Plagiarism can also go beyond the written word and include code, graphics, statistics, charts, and more. By understanding the answer to “what is plagiarism”, you’ll be much better equipped to not only spot it where you find it but avoid it in your own writing.
The Consequences of Plagiarism
In the academic world, different degrees of plagiarism can fall under different degrees of punishment, ranging from a failing grade to outright expulsion. In the professional world, the consequences of plagiarism can range from a loss of credibility and authority to outright legal action with monetary damages.
The original copyright owner of the content has a variety of actions at their disposal for uncovering and taking action against plagiarism, and the consequences can be far-reaching and hard to come back from.
Furthermore, there’s no “line in the sand” that says “this is considered plagiarism that will warrant legal action, and this isn’t”. This is exactly what leads many people to ask some of the questions we’ve covered in this article including things like how many words are considered plagiarism, and whether or not you can plagiarize yourself (spoiler: yes you can).
Online, plagiarism faces an even greater punishment. Sites which knowingly plagiarize from others risk losing their search engine ranking (or being pulled from the rankings entirely) which is a death knell for an online business. For these reasons, it’s important that writers, content creators, and website owners alike fully understand what plagiarism is (in all its forms) and how to avoid letting it creep into their work.
How to Avoid Plagiarism
Avoiding plagiarism doesn’t mean you shouldn’t cite other authors or creators in your work. In fact, doing so can lend greater credibility and clout to your content. The best ways to avoid plagiarism are twofold:
- Keep a text file or other document that includes all of your sources so that you don’t inadvertently miss citing a specific author or realtor and
- Think about what the content creator or author has stated and how it aligns with your own perspective or opinion. Take the time to thoroughly flesh out your own stance on the subject using your experiences and knowledge.
This acts like a scaffolding on which to build and refine your ideas, adding professional touches here and there that further augment your own viewpoints and add weight to your explanations.
In avoiding plagiarism, you also further cement your reputation and optionally, the reputation of the company or site you’re creating content for. It’s a win-win for everyone and an excellent way to help build upon your standing as a thought leader in your chosen niche or industry. As you continue to do this, you’ll make your arguments or statements even stronger, improve your writing as a whole and become an even greater recognized authority.
The Role of Citation and Referencing in Avoiding Plagiarism
The first step above, creating a document that includes all of your sources, is a necessary step in avoiding plagiarism. When you cite the work of others correctly, you acknowledge the original author’s contribution to the topic and give credit and credence to their point of view while incorporating your own. Not only is it the honest and ethical thing to do, it’s a proven way to avoid plagiarism and ensure that all of your references are cited correctly within the overall context of what you’re presenting.
Seven Common Types of Plagiarism – Examples and How to Avoid
One of the biggest challenges in dealing with plagiarism is that there’s not just ONE type of plagiarism that you can easily side-step and consider yourself in the clear. There are several types of plagiarism and some of them you may not even recognize as plagiarism at all.
For example, there’s mosaic plagiarism (also called “patchwriting”) where someone takes an author’s overall concept or idea and puts it in their own words; in short, a type of paraphrasing. When someone does this by pulling from many different sources, the work can appear to be wholly original – after all, they didn’t plagiarize directly. However, it’s still considered plagiarism to misquote or paraphrase someone else’s idea even in your own words without citing the original author as the source of those ideas.
To help you get a better understanding of all of these “gray areas” as they relate to plagiarism, we’ve covered seven common types of plagiarism along with examples and how to avoid them. Although it is by no means an exhaustive list of every conceivable type of plagiarism out there, it will help you to better identify plagiarism where you see it and take steps to avoid it.
Examples of Plagiarism in Real Life
When we talk about plagiarism, we often think of university students who are still learning how to properly cite authors while uncovering and putting their own perspectives into words. But plagiarism isn’t just confined to academia. Journalists, media personalities, celebrities, singers, authors and artists, even well-known names have been caught plagiarizing in the past.
Needless to say, some never got caught, some realized their mistake and worked to make amends and others completely denied the coincidence. Seeing examples of plagiarism in real life reminds us all how common (and tempting) it can be to pinch a few words or a concept here and there, especially in an era of “always on” and “on-demand” content in a variety of forms and the standards as to what constitutes “high-quality content” continuing to grow as search engines position themselves more and more with a keen eye on thorough, well-researched, expertly crafted material.
That, in turn, leads many people to ask the next question:
How Many Words in a Row is Plagiarism?
Sometimes, content creators, writers, bloggers, and other content professionals will come across something that’s explained so clearly and succinctly that there simply is no better way to phrase it. That often leads them to ask “How many words in a row is plagiarism?” Many colleges and universities have a general rule of thumb that puts that number at three, but the same idea also applies to images, charts, ideas, and concepts as a whole where there are no “words in a row”.
Plagiarism is less of a “line in the sand” and more of a general view in terms of phrasing something in the same or a very similar way as someone else without properly citing them as the author or creator. For this reason, it’s difficult to define the specifics of how many words are in a row or what percentage of plagiarism is “acceptable”. The answer for the latter is “none”.
That brings us to the use of artificial intelligence in crafting content. When you can give an AI program a prompt or a concept to draw upon and have it write something that sounds good (but may or may not be factual and accurate), at what point is it considered plagiarism? After all, you can’t exactly cite an AI as if it were a researcher.
Plagiarism in the Digital Age – AI Impact on What Plagiarism Means
The world is abuzz with the potential of tools like ChatGPT and how it’s causing us to reimagine what content creation in all its forms, looks like. There are AI tools on the market that can create everything from art to music and even pass the bar exam. That leaves many content creators and website owners alike to ask, “How does this change the way in which we define plagiarism?”
It’s a loaded question to be sure. The AI impact on what plagiarism means is still being felt and discussed by thought leaders, artists, writers, musicians, and professionals around the world. There is no single answer, especially as search engines and other online channels become more sophisticated and release their own AI offerings, like Google’s Bard.
They then, in turn, blur the lines on what they deem acceptable or not. Even in mid-2022, Google previously maintained a hard-line stance that any content created automatically with an automated writing tool was against Google’s own Webmaster Guidelines.
Upon its release of its own AI, Bard, to the public in early 2023, however, the tune suddenly changed and it now centers around writing that meets its “E-A-T” criteria: content that demonstrates Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trust and is less focused as to where that content came from, robot or human.
Although Google is hoping that softening its stance on AI-derived content will make people more amenable to using Bard, it also seems entirely focused on using AI writers as tools (for example to provide inspiration or an outline), rather than the lazy content creator’s method which simply involves copying and pasting entire paragraphs of AI-generated content, factual or not.
How much Plagiarism is Allowed?
This then begs the question of “How much plagiarism is allowed?” You’ll find differing answers to this question all over the web. In some academic papers, the rule of thumb is 15% because in the past, when rudimentary plagiarism checkers were popular if 15% of your content matched text that was already in the tool’s database, it was an acceptable number.
This didn’t necessarily mean that you had plagiarized 15% of the text, but rather that you were citing authors or clarifying your sources, and your text obviously matched something out there. The tools simply weren’t smart enough to look at the context of how the information was presented, only that there was a clear match. Therefore, 15% became a common standard.
Now that AI tools have taken the web by storm, it’s time to revisit this number. AI plagiarism checkers, like Originality.AI, detect where text matches the tell-tale signs of having been AI-written. Even if you didn’t use an AI writing tool, however, if your writing is more technical or uses common AI transitions like “In addition” or “Furthermore” to clarify your points, you may find yourself looking at a higher percentage of “AI-ness” in your reports.
This then brings us back to the question, of how much plagiarism is acceptable. Throughout this article, you’ll find links to more detailed answers to those questions, including how to avoid plagiarism, how to properly cite your sources online, and much more. With so much information at your disposal about how to craft your content the right way, the answer should ideally be zero.
Zero plagiarism isn’t just a lofty goal. It’s a must in this day and age where writers, bloggers, and other content creators are forced to step up to the plant and truly let the very best of what they’re capable of shine.
As long as you properly cite your sources and references online with a link back and a mention of the author, you’ll find that your own original ideas, interspersed with their work, make the end result much more authoritative and trustworthy; points that Google, as well as your reading audience, will enjoy and learn from.
Of course, in establishing yourself as a trusted expert in your chosen field or niche, it’s important not to plagiarize yourself in the interest of saving time and avoiding having to do double the work for what is seemingly the same type of project.
Can you Plagiarize Yourself?
You can absolutely plagiarize yourself, which, knowing what you now know about plagiarism, seems downright amusing. How can you steal from yourself if you were the originator of the idea, concept, or explanation? Plagiarizing yourself is less about using your own words or approach and more about using previous content you created without – you guessed it – properly citing yourself.
With ever more stringent demands and search engine suggestions on what makes for “high-quality content”, writers, content creators, and website owners often need to work in short, targeted constraints.
Whether it’s hitting a specific number of words or incorporating specific data points, drawing upon work you’ve already done without citing yourself not only does a disservice to your existing work and your credibility as a name to know in your niche, but it’s also unfair to your client, who is banking on original content that stands on its own merits.
By all means, if you’ve done the legwork to create a fantastic whitepaper, chart, or other types of media, cite yourself. It won’t appear at all as if you’re patting yourself on the back and will instead further cement your name as a recognized authority. In short, everyone wins: you, your client and the brand itself.
Up until this point, we’ve talked a lot about the different kinds of plagiarism, how much plagiarism is acceptable, what AI tools mean for the future of plagiarism, and how to avoid plagiarism in general. But underneath all of these questions is a more deeply-rooted, ethical question:
Why is plagiarism wrong? What is it about using someone else’s words, graphics, or ideas that if taken to its severest degree, is enough to get students a failing grade or booted from their college or university, or to cause a mark of shame on journalists or authors? What about it is so wrong that the offending perpetrator could face legal action or monetary damages?
The Ethics of Plagiarism: Why Plagiarism is Wrong and How to Avoid It
The answer is that it’s not the use of someone else’s words, ideas, or other supporting material that are wrong per se, it’s the lack of proper citation in referencing them and giving them credit as the original creator that makes it ethically wrong.
For the person doing the plagiarizing, on the surface this seems like a great idea – take a sentence or two (or more) from an established expert, either verbatim or rephrased in your own words, and position it as your own unique idea. You get a good grade, pass the class, get mentioned on social media, get referenced in other journals or research papers, get backlinks, and all the other accolades while the original creator gets nothing.
The problem is that it’s not a matter of if you’ll get caught, but when. Eventually, someone (maybe even the original author) will read that content, realize that it sounds an awful lot like something they read before and at that moment they have at their disposal a variety of legal tools and recourse to take action.
As a content creator or website owner, it’s much better to approach this existing material with the mindset of wanting everyone to win – including yourself and the original creator. By referencing their idea and giving them credit with their name, a backlink, a reference, a footnote, or whatever other citation that your company or client requests, you’re essentially telling the reader, “My own thoughts and opinions are made better and stronger by these other people who also did their own research.” By linking back to them, you also give credit where credit is due and allow the reader to learn more should they desire.
In short, you’re standing on the shoulders of giants, and you never know who, in the future, will cite you as their resource of choice as they continue to create and share content in your field. Although plagiarism itself can seem like a muddled field in terms of what’s acceptable and what isn’t, the ethics of plagiarism are clear.
The Importance of Proper Attribution in Avoiding Plagiarism
Proper attribution is the simple answer to avoid any and all accusations (or temptations) of plagiarizing. Not only can proper attribution help you sidestep questions like what is and isn’t acceptable, how many words in a row are plagiarism, what percentage of plagiarism is allowed, and so on, but it also strengthens and clarifies your own position.
In some cases, there are even authors who allow people to freely use, remix, build upon, and otherwise edit their work through the Creative Commons organization. There’s also public domain content and content that falls under the U.S. government’s view of “Fair Use”. Rather than further muddy the waters of what’s considered or not considered plagiarism, these different branches of using or editing others’ work generally all boil down to one simple requirement: mention the original creator. It’s the proper thing to do.
How to Avoid Content Plagiarism in AI Tools
Artificial intelligence writing and content creation tools have opened up a world of possibilities. Like any tool, there’s the temptation to take what they create as fact (after all, it sounds awfully convincing). Although it remains to be seen how much of AI-powered content search engines will leverage in their own listings (Microsoft has offered generous financial support to OpenAI, the creators of ChatGPT and Google recently released Bard to the public), it won’t take long before more and more people will come to see purely AI-written content as “decently written, but not much else.”
As content creators, we can do better. Our clients, readers, and the internet as a whole deserve better. For this reason, tools like Originality.AI exist: to give everyone involved in the content creation and publication process peace of mind that their information is not only original, but also accurate, well-written, insightful, and engaging – things that no AI writing tool can replicate.
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