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The Accidental Plagiarist - 10/25/2011 -

Contrary to popular belief (and wishful thinking), all Internet content isnotpublic domain. In the digital age, plagiarism prevention—and protection of your publications and authors—needs to be a team effort.

By Ben Berkey

Cooks Source magazine brewed up a firestorm of Internet criticism in November 2010 when its editor plucked an online article by a food blogger and published it without permission. When the blogger requested an apology, the editor erroneously insisted that all Internet content is "public domain.” The editor even said the blogger should feel fortunate to have received any credit at all.

The Cooks Source incident may seem distressing to experienced publishing professionals, but easy access to online content has greatly increased authors' risk of unwittingly committing plagiarism. The volunteer authors that associations depend on may not know how to properly cite a reference. And as Cooks Source demonstrated, simply crediting a source might not be good enough. Publishing staff need to educate their authors at every step of the production process.

Plagiarism Defined

Few authors intend to plagiarize—or take credit for—someone else's work. However, many inadvertently commit copyright infringement by using too much of the original text or failing to obtain proper permission.

· In general, paraphrased text that is based on another work must cite the original author.

· Verbatim quotes should be enclosed in quotation marks and must cite the original source. (Some publishing styles also require the page number of the quote.)

· However, a lengthy verbatim passage, photo, table, or figure is considered a reprint. This requires documented permission to use from the copyright holder, who most often is the publisher of the original work, not the author.

· On the other hand, a photo, table, or figure that has been altered is considered an adaptation. This also requires permission from the copyright holder, who must approve the alterations as well.

This is only a brief overview of copyright. For more information, consult your association's style guides or refer to the U.S. Copyright Office's FAQ.

How Accidental Plagiarism Occurs

In the Oncology Nursing Society's (ONS) publishing department, all team members play an active role in educating authors about copyright and proper usage. Technical editor Angela Klimaszewski, whose article on plagiarism currently is out for review, believes that some authors suffer from cryptomnesia—the unintentional plagiarism that occurs when a writer neglects to credit a source.

"It takes time to go back and summarize, paraphrase, and properly cite a resource. Many authors do not have–or do not make–the time to go back and check references when they finish writing for the day,” Klimaszewski says.

The solution is careful, thorough editing. Publishing staff under stress from a looming deadline must find the time to double-check unattributed statements or suspicious tables and figures. "Avoiding plagiarism is not as difficult as it is time consuming. Busy professionals must choose to make the time to keep their writing clean,” she says.

Protecting Online Content

Articles published online should include clear instructions for reusing the content properly. ONS production and permissions manager Mike Minjock says, "All of our online journal articles and similar content include prominently displayed copyright statements and instructions for seeking permission, including our e-mail addresses for obtaining permissions and reprints.”

However, even when articles are housed on a password-protected site and copyright statements are clearly displayed, content still tends to wind up on websites without permission. Although this situation is frustrating, publishing staff should use the opportunity to educate offenders about proper access and use. "Most plead ignorance and apologize,” Minjock says.

Online databases can be useful for preventing plagiarism. ONS currently is exploring CrossCheck, which compares manuscripts to the full text of scholarly medical publications. "Most of the content in our specialty area is not open access or readily available online, so plagiarism-detection products that search the general Internet for matches would not be ideal for us,” Minjock says. He cautions, "Make sure that the plagiarism-detection product you purchase is the right fit.”

Trust Your Editorial Instincts

Leslie McGee, managing editor of the Oncology Nursing Forum and the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, emphasizes the value of a well-educated staff in plagiarism prevention. Experienced editors can detect subtle changes in style that may signify accidental plagiarism, such as an unattributed section of text that looks too polished compared to the rest of the article. "Quite simply, you get a handle on what is original and what is not,” she says.

McGee first encountered inadvertent digital plagiarism early in her publishing career. "I remember reviewing author-submitted photos that looked too professional for the rest of the submission. When I spoke with the author about it, he said they were copied from the Internet. He assumed that anything online was in the public domain. Fast forward to the present and this assumption still exists.”

Editors should be prepared to become cyber sleuths and research suspicious tables and figures to determine whether the author needs to seek permission from a copyright holder. "An experienced editor occasionally has to moonlight in detective work,” she says.


Plagiarism in the Internet era most often stems from misunderstanding about copyright and proper usage. Publishing staff members need to watch for accidental plagiarism and seize the teachable moment to educate authors when mistakes occur. For more detailed information about plagiarism prevention, visit the following Web sites.

· Copyright Clearance Center: search for and obtain permission to use online content.

· Plagiarism.org: provides education and tips for plagiarism prevention.

· U.S. Copyright Office: definitions and resources involving copyright and fair use.

Ben Berkey is copy editor at Oncology Nursing Society and a member of the Association Media & Publishing Content Creation Committee.


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