I have plagiarised; and I have done it many times. I can give you excuses – I was young, I was stupid and lazy, I was under pressure, I lacked self belief – but really there are none. It is inexcusable. Plagiarism is theft, not just from another writer, but also from yourself – you are robbing yourself of the pleasure of writing, of taking full ownership of a piece of work, of the honour of having your work then read by thousands of people (even in this age of declining sales). I regret it, because it devalues all of the work I did back then; if you’ve done it once, your entire canon is basically bullshit. But what is most surprising about plagiarism is just how common it is.
I worked as a sub editor, a job that involves editing and rewriting a journalist’s work with two key aims – to conform to house style and, more importantly, to sharpen the text so no it is as tight as possible. The best writers were the ones whose work was nearly impossible to cut – they could weave an untouchable tapestry that took a considerable amount of time to unpick and edit. But not everyone had the skill – or, more commonly, the time – to craft their copy like that. In fact, time has a lot to do with plagiarism – journalists are expected to do more with less, so they have less time to write more copy, meaning that the temptation to cut and paste direct from the web is all the more alluring. But it is easy to spot. Every journalist has a voice in which they write, and plagiarised copy is like badly dubbed cinema; another voice suddenly chimes in, breaking the flow and disrupting the entire piece.
It was in my work as a sub that I discovered just how widespread it is. Whether lifting chunks from a press release and sticking your byline on it, or just lifting off Wikipedia, the print industry is rife with it. And beyond the cut-and-paste culture, there is the culture of regurgitation – and this is where the line between plagiarism and ‘research’ gets blurry. If you are writing on a subject and read all you can and then rewrite and condense it, is that plagiarism? Or a well-researched piece of writing? When is a credit to the original source needed, because this isn’t academia – this is a newspaper, where footnotes simply don’t work. At what stage do you need to credit a source? This is a good example of where one was needed. Read to the end for the link to the other piece ‘inspired’ by their work. It is basically a rewrite of work by an excellent blog, repackaged and sold to a paper who then charges the public for access to it.
But it’s really only when you get plagiarised yourself that you understand what an ugly thing it is to do – but there is so much of it going on that you actually feel silly for pointing it out. Or at least, that was how I felt. My dad was the person who spotted an article similar to one I had written for the Irish Examiner. It was about the same topic, so there was always going to be similarities. But it was when I spotted one of my own typoes in the copy that I realised it was actually lifted straight from my work. It wasn’t a huge amount, about six lines, but it was enough to tick me off. I posted on the blog about it, and tweeted my dissatisfaction. Nothing happened for a couple of days, then it ended up on Broadsheet.ie and it took off from there. An apology was offered, accepted, and a few lessons learned – including the age-old one that people in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones. It may be well over a decade since I plagiarised, but I was still not in a position where I could sit in judgement on anyone for doing the exact same thing I did. I should have contacted the writer privately, rather than behaving like a total prick.
The most important lesson of all was about originality and creativity in general. If print media is to survive in any form, it has to take a zero tolerance approach to both plagiarism and its ugly sibling, churnalism. To have thousands of people reading your words is a privilege – one that most journalists take completely for granted. To be honest, if the weight of that knowledge was ever-present on your mind you would probably never write a word. But quality journalism – well-written, original content – is more important now than ever, as the lifting of content – be it written or otherwise – is becoming more and more of a problem. Platforms like Facebook/Pinterest/Tumblr are just making the problem worse. They enable you to reblog or repost or pin or share content that not only did you not create, you also have no idea who actually created it. One of the reasons I quit my local gym was their cavalier attitude to content – their Facebook page repeatedly posted beautiful photos of weddings lifted from Pinterest et al and passed off as their own. No credit was given to the models, the photographers, the stylists, the graphic designers. Anything they saw that tickled their fancy suddenly became fodder for their ‘digital marketing’ portfolio. They failed, just as I had, to heed the one commandment of content – respect the creator.
Nowadays I try to write every word, take every photo, record every talk, shoot and edit the videos, and generally do as much as I can, because nobody is going to read your blog for a load of press releases. I may run Ireland’s Least Successful Blog, but that is because I am Ireland’s Least Successful Journalist – but at least I can claim that I earned both those titles through my own inept work. To fail on your own merits is a far better feeling than achieving success at the expense of others. Or at least that’s what I tell my kids as I feed them cardboard for breakfast.