Publishing evils: Protecting against plagiarism in thought leadership

“Plagiarism” is an ugly word. It can get you reprimanded, branded a thief, even kicked out of school or fired. These labels are tough to shake, particularly if word gets out—which it inevitably does, because internet.

Whereas some plagiarism—such as that in the music industry—is arguably subjective and up to interpretation, in publishing it’s still pretty straightforward. As in, if you use the words or ideas of others without attribution, it’s plagiarism.

Plagiarism in thought leadership

Unfortunately, we see several forms of plagiarism on a regular basis in B2B thought leadership—a realm set apart by the importance of original knowledge and ideas. I was working on a report last year by an author for whom English is a second language, and I was charged with editing the language accordingly. In the midst of the piece were several paragraphs rendered in perfect syntax, with US-style punctuation (the rest of the piece used British punctuation). I googled a few of the sentences, found the source material, pointed it out to the author, and learned that he’d intended the paragraphs to be “placeholder text.” Together we wrote paragraphs that reflected his ideas, and he was able to complete a piece that was wholly his own.

Our experience is that plagiarism is often not borne of malevolence but a lack of due diligence. As in the example above, the way many authors do research today is to cut and paste paragraphs as they’re gathering information. As they’re writing, they confuse what text was theirs with the sourced material. Or a multiauthor team may be trading a draft back and forth; what one author inserted as background information may get woven into the piece by another.

Other times authors may be reporting survey results or attempting to define a technical concept, and they’ve offered a footnote to the original source—but part of the wording is identical (usually because the original source phrased it well), and without quotation marks, and so the text is presented as their own ideas and wording.

Most of the time, the author is unaware that they’ve crossed the line of plagiarism. Still, the entire point of content marketing and thought leadership is building credibility in the marketplace. Plagiarism—even unintentional—can bring it all crashing down, permanently damaging an author’s and a company’s reputation.

How to safeguard against plagiarism

At Leff, as part of our process to ensure our clients’ work is of the highest editorial quality, we’ve made it standard procedure to run every piece we work on through an online plagiarism checker. This practice isn’t because we mistrust our clients; it’s because mistakes happen.

The plagiarism checker examines each word in the document and scours the internet for identical groupings of eight words or more. It’s not perfect—for example, it can’t scan books that aren’t online—but it’s already helped us identify plagiarism contenders small and large, from partial sentences to entire paragraphs. In those cases, we reword the sentences and ensure that a footnote or in-text mention is taking full and proper credit for the idea.

I’m happy to report that we’ve yet to meet a piece that appears to be intentional plagiarism. But I admit, I’m a bit paranoid now. Case in point: I wrote this blog post with my own fingers, and I know for a fact that I didn’t lift any wording from another writer—but I still ran it through the plagiarism checker.

As an editor, it’s better to be on the safe side.

Brittany Williams

Brittany is the editorial director at Leff. She is passionate about helping clients tell their stories through incisive, fact-based narratives. Every once in awhile, she takes a break to muse on rhetorical devices, grammar, and content strategy on the Leff Communications blog. Follow Brittany on Twitter @britpetersen.

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