HOW TO AVOID ACCIDENTALLY PLAGIARIZING WHEN USING ONLINE SOURCES
Authors, do you know how to avoid accidentally plagiarizing when using online sources to do research for writing your book? I have some tricks to share.
Rarely do you see blatant plagiarism where a writer cuts and pastes into a document from online sources and simply replaces a few words as happened this week with Monica Crowley, author of What the (Bleep) Just Happened, published by a division of HarperCollins Publishers, one of the Big Five publishers (and one I used to work at as an in-house acquisitions editor). You can’t rely on an in-house acquisitions editor or their copyediting and proofreading team to make sure you didn’t plagiarize. So if you are doing online research to write a self-help, life lessons, or other nonfiction book, know what you have to do to treat the authors of original material with respect and avoid plagiarizing accidentally.
In my opinion, Crowley should have known it was wrong to simply use others’ words and replace a word here and there–for example, she replaced “depends” with “relies” and “prominent” with “major.” Maybe she actually thought this was acceptable.
It is not.
Even if you know better than to write over someone else’s words, to be safe, never, ever cut and paste someone else’s words into a document unless you put their words in quotation marks and note the source along with adding a link that takes you to that source! Take the time to cite resources properly.
Even then, it is best to put the notes in an idea file document. Create some headers to categorize the material to remind you that this is just the idea file and not a file of your writing. I like to use all caps and create a header with summary concepts, like SENSORY OVERLOAD TANTRUMS MELTDOWNS and SENSORY OVERLOAD SYMPTOMS. Then, when I go to write the chapter, I can work with the idea file, but I know I’m not actually going to salvage any of the writing in the idea file. I’m going to memorize it and then outline from what I know.
Also, I generally write in Times New Roman, Arial, or Cambria (common default fonts), so I like to put any direct quotes I save in another font to signal to me “this is someone else’s writing.” That’s another a safety mechanism that can prevent accidentally misreading someone else’s words as yours.
If it’s hard to imagine how you might reword the material, look it up in a few different sources and memorize the concepts. This way, it’s easier to come up with how you would say it.
Be cautious about lists, too. For example, if I were to list the common symptoms of sensory processing disorder, number one on the list would be unusual under-reactions or overreactions to everyday sensations. There only so many ways to say all that, and it truly is the most basic symptom, which pretty much defines disordered or dysfunctional sensory processing. Writing some variation of that symptom as #1 on the list is just giving readers a fact in your own words. But if #2, #3, #4, and #5 on the list are in almost the exact same order as they are in a list someone else wrote, you didn’t do your research carefully. The symptoms lists are everywhere. Mentally process what you read, remember the basic symptoms, and then write them in a list, from memory, and then check a few sources to see if you forgot any. I’ve written a symptoms list many times and I can’t remember what I’ve put as symptom number two each time. Who knows? It’s really #1 that’s memorable.
If you hire a researcher, that person could cause you to accidentally plagiarize. Perhaps Crowley had a ghostwriter or researcher helping her, and Crowley was not on top of the researcher’s work. Even so, the helper might not have been responsible for these passages. A professional ghostwriter can often pick up on a researcher’s or author/expert/client’s cut and paste from someone else’s site when the document is returned from the author/expert/client. A ghostwriter or developmental editor will look for font and formatting changes as well as words that don’t sound like the author/expert would use them. For example, in one plagiarized passage, Crowley used the term “coyly”—that’s an unusual word. If I were the ghostwriter or developmental editor working on a book like this, I’d find or ask for the original source of the anecdote and Google “Churchill drunk coyly” and similar combinations to figure out the original source of the anecdote. I probably would have found the same source she (or her researcher) used and realized oh no, this is plagiarized and that means other passages may be too! That’s just one way I would research an anecdote or ask the client to research it. Be really clear with a researcher about what you want delivered. Think about whether you might want your researcher to read this article and discuss it with you.
Also in that anecdote, she had Winston Churchill saying something to a woman while “drunk” (an informal word that you should not use to describe people who are inebriated unless you are sure you want to use that word.) I’d question who referred to him as “drunk” and look that up using a search engine, and perhaps Google Books.
Anecdotes should be put in your own words, just as if you were telling the story to someone else. You should cite the original source in an endnote or footnote if you can’t find multiple sources that have the same basic details. Use your own words; it’s easy to do. You would do it if you were speaking on a teleseminar or in front of an audience, wouldn’t you?
Good researchers and writers doing research take detailed notes. They save links and summarize what was on the site, and put in quotation marks specific locutions/combinations of words they might want to use as a direct quote. They even use ellipses (that’s: . . .) and brackets (that’s ) to be sure the quote is not tampered with, and they note the page number. Then, in later drafts, they, and the copyeditor, go back and check the quotation in context, word for word, punctuation mark for punctuation mark.
When rewording material, process it mentally. Sit and think about all the research you did on a particular topic, and think about what details your reader needs to know. A statistic? Dates? Actual quotes from people that show they clearly misspoke, misremembered, or lied about details and dates? People often don’t remember exact details so do some research online, using reliable sources. Just for fun, try to find a reliable source for the claim that drinking 8 ounces of water a day is important for health. Go to a .gov site, or Web MD or Mayo Clinic or a major medical college (with a .edu) and try to get evidence to support this claim. Good luck! Whatever you find, cite the source in your text or even in endnotes and paraphrase it accurately if you choose to paraphrase. Books rarely have footnotes anymore since people don’t like them at the foot (bottom) of the page. I love endnotes. They help me see where an author got her information, clue me into other books I might want to read and articles I might want to check out, and provide information that didn’t quite fit in the main text but is still interesting.
It’s shocking that someone who gets a major book deal would plagiarize, but it can happen. Be sure you talk with professionals in the book business about any research that needs to get done for your book and any fact checking it requires. They can save you embarrassments and headaches–and headlines and lost credibility.
So to sum up:
Don’t rely on someone else to catch any accidental cutting-and-pasting of words from another source!
Don’t cut and paste someone else’s words into your document without clearly marking what is a quotation and citing the source, including a link.
Use tricks like all-caps headers, idea files, quotations and citations and links for every quote, and different fonts to avoid accidentally mistaking someone else’s words as your own.
Memorize concepts. Process your ideas before writing them in your own words. Paraphrase accurately but still, cite sources.
Be cautious about lists.
If you hire a researcher, discuss with that professional what they will deliver. Consider having them read this article.
Cite your sources. Cite your sources. Cite your sources.
Want to receive even more practical information about writing mind/body/spirit nonfiction? Be sure to sign up for my email newsletter and you won’t miss any of the free information and special offers I have for my followers!
Nancy Peske is a ghostwriter, developmental editor, and book publishing consultant who has done editorial work on books including bestsellers and award-winners for over 30 years.