This post is for editors who suspect that they might have encountered some deliberate or accidental plagiarism when dealing with content for their business clients, particularly in regard to websites and blog content. By sharing my tips and practices, I hope that I can gather a resource of best practices for other editors / proofreaders.
What is plagiarism?
Plagiarism is the act of passing someone else’s work off as your own. In the business world, this usually involves copying someone else’s content, word for word, without linking back to the original work or acknowledging that it has come from elsewhere.
I’ve noticed that I and colleagues are fairly often confronted with content to edit that has been pulled wholesale from another (often rival) website, used word for word without attribution. That would be stolen. It’s found most often, in my experience, in business marketing content such as websites and blogs. Note that I have written about plagiarism in student work in another article.
Plagiarism in the business world
Why is plagiarism bad? Two reasons:
- If you steal someone else’s content, you are liable to be found out, either by a prospective client who is looking at several different websites in one business area, or by the originator of the content, who may be alerted by a search service such as Google Alerts or plagiarism-detecting software such as Copyscape (thanks Arlene Prunkel for the heads-up; she has blogged about her own experiences using this software).
- Using the exact same wording in two places alerts the search engines that something is amiss. It’s never clear exactly how the algorithms work, but you run the risk of your content not being indexed and found anyway.
Why is not flagging plagiarism bad for the editor?
- OK, we haven’t signed a Hippocratic Oath of Editing or anything, but it’s the job of a principled and decent editor not to allow plagiarism to happen – surely?
- Someone finds out that a site you’ve edited has plagiarised their content. You let it pass unmentioned. The plagiariser says, “Oh, my editor didn’t flag it up”, and the finger starts to point at you.
What form does business web content plagiarism take?
As with student plagiarism, business plagiarism can be deliberate or accidental – or a mixture of the two.
I’ve edited web text where the style and content varies so much that it’s clear that it’s come from different sources. Sometimes the client is clear about this, “Oh, I picked it up from various places, it doesn’t matter, does it?” Yes, it does.
On other occasions, I’ve been given a link to a single blog post or article, or perhaps a web page, usually by necessity published by the client’s rival, and been asked to “rewrite this so it doesn’t look like we’ve used their words”. Not ethical.
Deliberate or accidental plagiarism
Sometimes it’s not clear whether a client realises that you’re not supposed to lift text wholesale from another place. So it’s important not to pour scorn or invoke human rights and laws, but to quietly educate.
Very often, a client or indeed other blogger won’t realise that reposting the whole of an article or web page, with a reference or link at the bottom, will prejudice the search engines against them and lead to their content not being indexed. Here, it’s useful to drop them a line to suggest that they only post a few lines of the original with a link to where it can be found in full. Link-backs all round and happily shared content!
What to do when you encounter plagiarism in business texts
I have a sliding scale of activities depending on the level of plagiarism and overtness about the plagiarism:
Here’s what I do to avoid my clients plagiarising on their websites and blogs:
- If I find lots of reposted blog content which is referenced, I will have a quiet word about posting teasers and links instead.
- If I suspect content has been lifted from elsewhere, I’ll pop a few sentences into Google and see if I can find the source. Then I’ll raise the issue with the client by marking the sections or just emailing them to ask if they had permission to quote the source. I’ll then suggest that they rewrite it (or have it rewritten) using a variety of sources.
- If a client has quoted an industry leader or other person but not referenced where they got those quotes, and it’s clearly not from a direct conversation, I will advise them that they should quote their sources in a source list or footnote or link.
- If I am asked to rewrite one blog post or web page to make it suitable for the client, I will go back to them and either offer to research the topic myself or ask for a list of suitable resources from which to research it (which can then be referenced in the text)
I will always explain why plagiarising is a bad idea and the effects it can have on their business, reputation and search engine results. Most clients understand the issues once they’re explained: any that ask me to continue helping them to plagiarise whatever will become ex-clients. I can’t risk being associated with this kind of activity, and I don’t wish to be implicated in any scandals, plus it’s against my ethics to promote or encourage plagiarism.
I’ve talked here about strategies for dealing with plagiarism in business texts. If you have any other practices you’d like to share, please do submit a comment below!
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