Plagiarism In The Digital World

By David G. Taylor, Ph.D.

Today, it is easier than ever before to commit plagiarism, and the lines are as to what constitutes plagiarism have grown fuzzier and hazier. As a result, even marketers who consider themselves ethically constrained may cross those lines.

As a university professor, fighting student plagiarism is a battle as old as my profession, but today it is even more difficult. Students can copy and paste entire documents with a few keystrokes. But plagiarism has also become more difficult to define. Our university handbook defines plagiarism as “misrepresenting the sources of one’s information and ideas” or “presenting another person’s written words or ideas as one’s own.”

In the age of social media and content aggregation, this notion seems almost quaint. Content sharing and assimilation is an integral part of the social media environment, and millennials have grown up in this world. But it’s not unique to the younger set. When any of us connected consumers find something that catches our fancy, we “like”, “retweet” or “share” it. It’s the social part of social media.

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Marketers are no different. There is a world of content out there, and we want to share it with our customers, or highlight information that support our messages. It’s a vital part of maintaining our presence in digital and social media. But it’s easy to slip into questionable acts of plagiarism. How many times have I needed an image for a PowerPoint presentation, and simply copied and pasted from Google? More than I’m willing to admit.

The format in which Google returns search image results, in particular, makes the process of plagiarism seem more innocuous. We receive a page of images disconnected from their source, and a simple right-click makes it our own. Similarly, it’s a short leap from using text as source material to just copying it outright. With all of the sharing going on, it can also be difficult to cite original sources, even if we want to. For example, in researching this article, I found an info-graphic that claimed that the level of plagiarism on the Internet could exceed 63%. I found no source for this statistic, despite URLs listed as sources, so I am not going to cite it as fact, tempting as it may be. I will simply say that this claim exists on the Internet.

As a marketer, there are steps you can take to avoid becoming part of the significant percentage of Internet content (whatever that percentage may be) that is plagiarized:

Don’t use Google image search as a content tool.

Just don’t do it. Subscribe to a royalty-free stock image service such as ShutterStock instead.

Use hyperlinks to refer readers to the original source.

It is unlikely the content owner will complain if you cite a short snippet of their text and drive traffic to their site. (If you’re reading this and want to share it on your website, feel free. Just link this page.)

When retweeting or otherwise sharing posts, be sure the original source appears prominently.

If you’re sharing an industry report, attribute whatever you say to the organization that created it.

Avoid retweeting images or graphics.

Unless you have explicit permission to share, or the image appears in your Facebook feed when you share a link to a page, use text and hyperlink to the image. (And, of course, credit the source.)

Don’t copy and paste text.  

Unless you are planning to directly quote text, don’t copy and paste it into a new document.  It’s a commonly used shortcut – copy, paste, then change the copied text to paraphrase – but too often the last step is either insufficiently original, simply overwriting a word here or there, or skipped altogether.  Rather than copying and pasting the original text, type the paraphrased section on the new document in your own words (and, of course, be sure to attribute the source material.)

David G. Taylor, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Marketing at Sacred Heart University.  Dr. Taylor has more than 12 years of experience in the interactive marketing industry, and his research into online branding, social media and digital marketing has appeared in top academic journals.