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The Counter-Plagiarism Handbook

Tips for writers and editors on how to avoid or detect journalistic plagiarism
February 26, 2010

Last week, I examined why news organizations aren’t using plagiarism detection services to root out literary thieves. Technology has a role in helping prevent and detect plagiarism, but it’s by no means a panacea. Good habits and best practices can help avoid and detect plagiarism (and fabrication).

The challenge is that, to my knowledge, no one has written a definitive guide to avoiding or detecting journalistic plagiarism. As a starting point, here’s a range of advice and tips.

Tips for Writers

The two most recent instances of plagiarism both saw the reporters in question claim that they had unintentionally used the work of others. Whether or not you find this a plausible explanation, it’s the most common excuse offered by journalists caught plagiarizing. They rarely, if ever, cop to the offense. So the question becomes how can we help journalists avoid accidental copying? Here’s what I’ve been able to collect in terms of tips and best practices:

• “Before you start to research, write. In the middle of your research, write. Expressing your own thoughts and using your own words will force your brain to flex the self-expression neurons, rather than the repetition neurons.” (Via Poynter)

• Keep research separate from writing. Don’t copy-and-paste other people’s words and work into your draft until you’re ready to quote from it. Then…

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• Use a different font and text color for your research files. This will help you instantly recognize other people’s words when you paste them into your story. (Many people have suggested this over the years. It works.)

• Add in the proper attribution as soon as you paste any research into your draft.

• Put quotes in “quotes.” Whether taking notes by hand, transcribing an interview, or copying text from another source, always use quotation marks. This helps prevent you from forgetting to add them later.

• Live to link. For those producing online content, link as much as possible. This reinforces the act of attribution. For print and broadcast people, stop the silly practice of not crediting competitors.

• If it seems clever, check it out. I thought Maureen Dowd had said a line like this, but I Googled it and couldn’t confirm. So let me state clearly that the first sentence of this bullet point may belong to someone else. The idea is straightforward: if you think you’ve come up with a clever or unique sentence or quip, check it out. It’s possible you heard or read it before and forgot. (Via ?)

• Review paraphrased material. The rewrite was/is an art in journalism. But if you get it wrong, you’re a thief. So always check your paraphrased sections against the originals. (Via eHow)

• Google it all. Plagiarists are often busted by someone plugging a few sentences or paragraphs into Google. Do the same for yourself. Google large sections of your piece just before submission in order to ensure you haven’t accidentally mislaid a few quotation marks. And use Factiva and/or Lexis-Nexis if you have access to them.

Tips for Editors

I can recommend no better advice than what was offered by John McIntyre, the former head of the copy desk at the Baltimore Sun, in 2008. The blog where he originally posted the information is no longer active on the Sun’s site, but McIntyre graciously republished the post on his own blog this week. (For those unsure of the rules of attribution, he also wrote this helpful column for my site.)

These are McIntyre’s best tips for spotting a plagiarist/fabulist:

Changes in diction: If the vocabulary of an otherwise amateurish student writer or cliche-ridden hack journalist should abruptly grow sophisticated, lifting is likelier than an infusion from the muse.

Changes in syntax: Same thing. If a writer who struggles to cobble together a noun and a verb suddenly masters the compound-complex sentence, with attendant Ciceronian participial ornaments, it’s time to start looking for the source.

Specialized information: Ask Howard Baker’s question from the Watergate hearings of beloved memory: What did he know, and when did he know it? Sudden access to biographical details, historical information, ecclesiastical terminology or scientific or medical expertise has to have come from somewhere. Insist on an explanation of the source.

Dubious sources: Any article based on a single source is automatically suspect — how can you tell that the source wasn’t lying? Where’s the confirmation? Similarly, anything based on second- or third-hand sources demands scrutiny. In addition, readers are justifiably suspicious of anonymous sources. Even when anonymity has been granted for good reason, such as the source’s reasonable fear of physical or economic injury, the writer should be obliged to reveal the source to the assigning editor, acquire independent supporting information, and give the reader as much information as is prudent about the anonymous source’s credibility.

Improbabilities: When Jack Kelley filed his famous story with USA Today about seeing, in the aftermath of a bombing, human heads rolling down the street, their eyelids still blinking, it would have been a good thing for the paper if an editor had said, “What the hell?” and followed up. In journalism, as in investment offers, if it looks too good to be true …

Here are a couple of other pieces of advice for editors:

• Beware of last minute, Hail Mary changes. If a reporter is struggling with a story and suddenly turns in something with top-notch quotes, solid research etc., you should be suspicious. How did things suddenly go so right?

• Open up the process. Encourage reporters to expand on an article by producing a blog post that lays out, and links to, their research, or that presents additional quotes from interviewees. “If everything we do is out there for the public to see, we’ll have an incentive to stay honest, and we might just earn back some of the trust that people seem to have lost in journalists over the past few decades,” wrote Michael Becker.

This is by no means a final guide; I hope reporters, editors and others will share their knowledge. Consider the above to be a starting point for discussion. What advice am I missing? How could these tips be improved? Share your thoughts in the comments or contact me directly.

Correction of the Week

“I am sorry to disappoint all the readers who wished to apply for the position, but New Orleans does not employ a ‘sex assessor.’ That was a misprint in Wednesday’s column. It should have read ‘tax assessor.’ Slips don’t come much more Freudian than that.” – Times-Picayune

Craig Silverman is currently BuzzFeed's media editor, and formerly a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.