Think you can really get away with plagiarism on the web? Think again: The truly toxic knock-off effects of stealing other people’s writing you never even considered

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It was an early evening exam and I was looking forward to whatever it was I did when I was supposed to be policing my students’ exams in 2010, in a former life when I was still teaching English. Surfing Reddit or working on a story probably.

Like most of the instructors at my underachieving university, I looked forward to exams because exams meant at least I wouldn’t have to pretend to be teaching students who weren’t all that interested in learning. The only thing I was worried about was a guy I’ll call Andreas because I was sure Andreas was going to fail my exam.

Ordinarily, it wouldn’t have bothered me. Most of the students who passed through my ESL 102 course didn’t know English and didn’t care to learn it. But Andreas was a lot less capable than most, so I knew that even the basic essay topic I’d set on the criminal justice system was going to ruin him.

Andreas ended up acing my essay. In fact, his writing was flawless. The essay so defied my expectations that I knew something had gone badly wrong. Andreas had definitely cheated, I just didn’t know how.

Had he seen an early copy of the exam, written an essay and then memorized it? Unlikely but possible. I wondered if the vindictive woman who had a part-time job pushing buttons on the department copy machine might have been a relative and smuggled the topic out. Or had Andreas been tutored...by a tutor who might have been paid off by the woman at the copy machine?

I was getting paranoid and, as it turns out, I was getting colder, wandering further and further from the actual truth. What actually happened I wouldn’t find out for some time.

• • •

Plagiarism is a multi-headed beast and means something different to every culture.

In some countries, plagiarism isn’t even a question of ethics. You’re either clever enough to get away with it or too careless and get caught. There is no stigma attached to claiming authorship for work that isn’t yours, and so no shame is involved.

If there were, you’d witness more grotesque scenes like the one I lived through in the seventh grade when Lauren Goldstone (not her name) broke down in abject tears when she was caught cheating in health class, a miniature victim of circumstances. Lauren’s tears were pure shame. She was disgusted with herself, and maybe a little worried about her spotless 4.0 GPA.

Obviously, reactions vary from student to student. You can find unabashed plagiarizers even in universities with established ethical codes, and students who feel remorse in schools without an honor system or a culture that cares. But generally speaking, those lines hold.

But the university classroom is a tiny, relatively easily policed microcosm. What happens when you leave the familiarity of that environment and enter the infinite informationscape of the Internet, where the stakes are higher but detection more complex?

In the Wild West of online content, a mulligatawny stew of research and reporting awaits us 24/7. The Internet is the ideal temperature for plagiarism to creep in and proliferate. Dig five minutes in any direction and you’ll find something like this true, but intentionally unsourced, story: a web development company steals its December blog from another web development company, whose original content (published without a date to stay evergreen) was also plundered by a third “journalist” on Medium.

It’s not only small fry that steal content either. You can also find big names embroiled in greyer moral gloop. In her recently published book on truth in journalism, The Merchants of Truth, former New York Times editor Jill Abramson has been accused of palming off as her own tracts of other writers’ work whose authorship her steel trap of a memory seems to have misremembered.

So while there is the bald plagiarism of second-rate hacks, there is also a murkier area of writing where even hugely successful writers can get lost. Let’s set the record straight.

Plagiarism 101

You claim authorship whenever you put your name on a text. But you usually aren’t writing in a bubble. You’ll need statistics, facts, quotes, graphics—even ideas—to make your points. Any of that can become plagiarism if you don’t let your readers know what you took from someone else and who you took it from.

In the case of print journalism or academic writing, you have a whole apparatus behind you to make sure that any facts or ideas that aren’t yours, but that end up in your texts, are attributed. It’s called referencing. If you couple solid referencing with a bibliography, then anyone who cares can verify that the ideas that came out of your pen also came out of your head. It works pretty nicely.

In the world of web writing we have the hyperlink, which is a very low-maintenance way of connecting readers with our original sources. For borrowed graphic material, we have the caption.

If you’re thinking you want your money back because I just told you something you already knew, consider this. For every troglodyte out there who steals a whole article and doesn’t care, there’s a well-intentioned writer who slips and does care, even if they downplay the significance of what they’ve done.

This is why plagiarism matters.

Any statistic you quote, even from a giant like the New York Times, is the sweat of another writer. It may not even be an established writer. It may be an emerging writer or a researcher who had to track that stat down from an actual study, which was, in turn, carried out over years by a team of researchers working long hours to advance their careers. It’s a tree of attribution and every step along the way brings a little bit of love, and hard-earned credit, to someone who helped to disseminate that information so the public could be better informed. It’s also what nourishes the truth-making process the Internet depends on.

Plagiarizing takes a pick axe to other people’s hard work and to the truth-making process itself. It’s more than an ethical dilemma. If you’re a writer or a company with a platform, it’s in your self-interest not to plagiarize your content because every article you cheapen by stealing is one less drop of faith in the system your brand or business depends on.

• • •

Andreas passed my class. I’m confident he never learned to write English because I don’t think Andreas was at university to learn anything.

But it did bother me for weeks that I hadn’t figured out how a guy who couldn’t speak a word of English had produced a spotless essay on the criminal justice system in the language.

The answer came late one night at a bar.

A friend of mine was getting a really long message from his wife. It was about their kid. The kid had done something bad. It look a few separate text messages to convey just how bad.

And that’s when I knew it wasn’t the lady at the copy machine, or any unscrupulous tutor, who had fed the essay topic to Andreas. Andreas had fed the essay topic to an accomplice in real time and that person had written and delivered the essay to Andreas—in real time.

Andreas wasn’t ashamed of what he’d done, and wouldn’t likely have been if he’d been caught. What he knew is that he’d beaten the system, in an admittedly pretty clever way. What he didn’t know was that cheating the system so that he didn’t have to learn how to think was the equivalent of four years of American university football concussions. Andreas had more or less guaranteed he would never learn how to argue rationally about anything he cared about.

And, yes, Andreas may grow up to be another Medium plagiarist, or the owner of a web development agency who specializes in on-site search engine optimization and doesn’t even realize that duplicating someone else’s content is bad for the credibility of his own website. Google is watching us all.

The cycle will be repeated and the information we depend on will become, theft by theft, a little less dependable. And that’s a shame for us all.