“Help, I just found plagiarism in this manuscript,” a colleague pleaded. It’s upsetting, but it’s common, and the misrepresentation is not always* coming from a place of ill intent or laziness.
What Plagiarism Is
Passing off someone’s words or ideas as your own is how plagiarism is defined. In our work, that usually means a writer copying a sentence or paragraph into their own writing, without saying whose words they are. That means not quotation marks setting the words apart, and no “said [so and so]” attribution.
Why Plagiarism is a Concern
In North America and many other markets, plagiarism is seen as fraud, and can include copyright infringement.
For the copyeditor, spotting plagiarism raises ethical concerns and the very uncomfortable job of raising the issue with the writer. Whether or not an editor subscribes to a professional association that has a code of conduct, perpetuating plagiarism is the sort of fraud that makes most editors uncomfortable.
Even after the source is correctly identified and attributed, the publisher (or author) may well need to secure permission to use the material.
It can damage an editor’s reputation and ability to land assignments if she becomes associated plagiarism or unsecured permissions. It can also open the editor to the legal responsibility of covering the costs of any claim of copyright infringement or even the cost of reprinting to fix such mistakes. We’ll talk more about this in a coming post.
How to Phrase the Query
“Is this the right attribution? I found this material in [source].” That’s the easiest way to address concerns. It also does the writer the courtesy of treating this as a mere oversight of attribution. And, in the days when plagiarism online is rampant and hard to detect, it gives the writer the chance to correct the attribution.
It’s really common for managing editors to “give the writer the benefit of the doubt,” calling them sloppy rather than guilty. We saw this earlier this month in Canada where a long-time national columnist was caught with “unattributed quotes” in her writing.
Does the copyeditor’s responsibility end there? We’ll look at this in a coming column. Let us know what you think.
*In some cultures, extensively quoting expert sources is a sign of great respect. Citing the source may not be seen as necessary because those words are so well known. Whatever the case, identifying others’ words is just not universally customary.