Help for Ambitious Writers Part 2: Plagiarism

Some years ago a friend excitedly told me that a self-publishing company was helping her write a book. Among the services she paid for were copyediting, formatting, and publicity.

Although a team of experts was hard at work getting her manuscript ready, she gratefully accepted my offer to take a look at it. When I read it, I was shocked at the issues the copyeditor had overlooked. More seriously, my friend unknowingly was guilty of a copyright violation. No one on the team was concerned that she hadn’t sought permission to copy a large chunk of a piece published by another writer. She thought crediting the author was sufficient.

The story had a happy ending: My friend obtained permission, didn’t go to jail, and ended up with a successful book.

Her experience came back to me last week in a newspaper story about a school district superintendent who’s been accused of plagiarism.

In 2014, Alachua County Superintendent Owen A. Roberts self-published a book called A Framework for Improving School Systems in the 21st Century. He very properly listed his sources at the end.

But there are no attributions in the actual text of his book. Readers don’t know who created the charts and collected the data. There are no quotation marks around the paragraphs copied from other writers.

Simply put, Roberts is guilty of plagiarism – and he may also have violated copyright law. His self-publisher, Xlibris, didn’t talk to him about these issues.

Does it make any difference? Hell, it makes a lot of difference.

The legal problem should be obvious. Copyright violations can lead to lawsuits, sizable fines, and jail time.

But there are other difficulties. Publishing history is full of stories of mistaken facts and falsified research. (For example, I’ve read almost every book about the infamous Lizzie Borden murder trial, and the misinformation I’ve found is astounding.) For that reason, sophisticated readers want to know who did the research and who vetted the data. Sometimes they want to check the sources themselves. They may also want to know where a chart or quotation came from so that they can use it in their own work. And they may simply want to read another article or book about a topic that interests them. 

Roberts, who holds a doctorate in educational research and evaluation from the University of Miami, is bewildered by the uproar. “I didn’t know there were academic norms at all,” he said.

He has been the Alachua County schools superintendent since July 2014. The district has a clearly stated plagiarism policy:

“All materials taken from a source that duplicates or approximates the wording used on that source must be placed in quotes or otherwise set aside as quoted material,” the document states. “Direct reference must be made to the source within the text or through the use of footnotes or endnotes. Failure to fulfill this requirement is plagiarism.”

What does this mean to your own writing projects? You need to educate yourself about copyright, fair use, and plagiarism. There’s plenty of information online, and librarians can help. If you have a complicated question about information you want to copy, you should consider hiring an attorney.

Yes, you can copy snippets of another person’s work without permission (it’s called “fair use”). But anything larger than a “snippet” requires written permission and – in many cases – payment. I’ve paid hundreds of dollars to use comic strips, paragraphs, and essays in my published work.

I have a marvelous permissions story to tell you about Sidney Poitier (a superb actor and a great and generous man). It will be the subject of my next post.



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