Jane Smith, who operates the very helpful How Publishing Really Works blog, has declared Friday, July 17 Anti-Plagiarism Day, with a post that provides a sampling of notorious plagiarism cases, a roundup of writings on the subject, and some thoughts on plagiarism in general. Check it out–it’s fascinating and thought-provoking reading.
I’ve written about plagiarism a number of times on this blog, mostly from the perspective of reporting on frivolous plagiarism lawsuits and debunking writers’ common fear that submitting their work to agents and publishers is just asking for theft (it’s not–reputable professionals won’t risk their reputation by stealing; disreputable people aren’t interested in manuscripts at all, and couldn’t do anything with them even if they were dumb enough to try to pilfer them).
But though publishing professionals aren’t likely to rip off aspiring writers, aspiring writers aren’t always so scrupulous about thieving from their peers, or even from already published books. Even more troubling is the epidemic of plagiarism among college students, who often “borrow” freely from online sources. It’s such a problem that many colleges and universities subscribe to anti-plagiarism services. My stepmother, a college professor, experiences it regularly (once, several students in one of her courses plagiarized the same source, reproducing the exact same sentences and paragraphs in their papers). Not only does this anger and discourage her, it eats up her time, for when she suspects plagiarism, she feels obliged to try and track it down.
It’s impossible not to be influenced by our environments, by what we see and read. As writers, we are constantly exposed to others’ ideas, themes, subjects, and even styles of writing, and all of these things combine in our work with our own original thoughts and expression. But Oscar Wilde’s oft-quoted (and often mis-quoted) aphorism–“Good writers borrow, great writers steal”–isn’t meant to be taken literally. Plagarism is profoundly dishonest, both ethically and intellectually. Don’t do it.