From the Mind of a Writer: Plagiarism Controversies and When IS Plagiarism Okay?

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The Chris Anderson Plagiarism Controversy and Jonah Lehrer’s “Self Plagiarism” are two polar examples of the ways in which plagiarism is used in today’s digital age. Because of the knowledge availability given to us by the internet, some people have taken to abusing such power, and as in the scenarios above, do so to better themselves.

To me, plagiarism is still what it once was when I first heard about it: a student’s laziness to create their own words, or to attribute the proper credit due to the original author. Reading these stories, however, have opened me up to another possibility: malicious and selfish intent. Because the men above came from a place of high authority (Anderson, an editor and journalist for Wired Magazine, and Lehrer a well known journalist for NY Times), society expects from them a certain moral, to hold themselves up to a particular standard given the position their work allows them. To me, a student’s plagiarism is unlikely comparable to that of a journalist whose articles reach thousands of consumers. The larger of an audience you have, the more responsibility you should hold yourself to when you write.

Let’s concentrate on the case of Jonah Lehrer. The concept “Self-Plagiarism” never once occurred to me, especially since many of us have been known to self-plagiarize. In the case of those who write creatively as a hobby, this is even more so the case, where we’ve scrapped old edits and then resurrected them when the need suited us. In this case, self-plagiarism is quite harmless. In the case of Lehrer, however, once that work is published, taking it and using parts of it in a completely unrelated publication, one separate from that of its original placement, can easily lead to issues. On the one hand, there is no original author to offend or discredit, but on the other hand two separate publications with the same exact articles (even paragraphs or recycled sentences) can fall back negatively on both publications. This reflects unprofessionalism on the part of the author responsible.

Plagiarism, in my opinion, most certainly gains its level of severity from the intent of its user. For example, where CNN and Times’ columnist Fareed Zakaria plagiarized similar ideas of a historian Jill Lepore, there are instances where plagiarists steal entire sentences and paragraphs of work word for word without citation, as in the case of Chris Anderson.

For Fareed Zakaria, I believe sharing in another’s ideas is a less condemnable form of plagiarism, especially because humans as one single entity share a plethora of ideals, values, and ultimately concepts that will occasionally intersect. Human ideas are a much more difficult and intangible source to persecute under plagiarism, whereas deliberate instances of plagiarism (whereby the perpetrator seeks to steal) would be a worse case.

As a writer of novels myself, most authors know that all good ideas have been done before. In one South Park spoof “The Simpsons Already Did It,” the episode saw its characters trying to come up with something wholly original before realizing every attempt had already been done by the Simpsons. When I first started writing, on my way to finishing my first fully drafted book, I had this wonderfully creative science fiction piece about blue aliens with yellow eyes taking over a dystopian Earth, they even had pets they binded with at birth—sound familiar? Of course it does. A large element of James Patterson’s “Avatar” is exactly that, and as soon as the movie hit theaters I felt forced to scrap my book (and I did).

Point is, there are realms in which plagiarism is entirely unintentional, where ideas just seemingly coexist between more than one human at a time. We think we’re being original, until another someone in our field of work gets published before us, and—adding fuel to the fire—simply just does it better.

Plagiarism—though it has its exceptions—may never be okay, but it is allowed to be incidental.

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