Using the language or thoughts of another author as your own, without credit, used to be a bad thing. But it looks like our attitudes about plagiarism have loosened, to say the least.
Who cares? If tolerating a little plagiarism is a slippery slope, might as well bring a sled and enjoy the ride, right?
The recent New York Times story about Kentucky Senator, Rand Paul puts plagiarism into the spotlight again, if only for a millisecond. He apparently took two different passages from Wikipedia and used them in speeches, practically verbatim, more than once. Sen. Paul’s office released this statement in response to the accusations, “Only in Washington is something this trivial a source for liberal media angst.”
The New York Times reporter reminds us that both Joseph R. Biden and Hillary Clinton were caught plagiarizing, and says that Wikipedia has already updated its site to reflect the Rand plagiarism story. In other words, are we over this yet?
It’s not just politicians who plagiarize. My friend “borrowed” text from a competitor’s website for hers and was shocked when she received an unfriendly notice to remove it. I write for a corporate consumer-product website where we see whole pages of text copied and used on hundreds of other sites.
Plagiarism is tempting, but it’s not harmless. It’s not only stealing, it’s a stupid way to communicate. Here’s why:
- Plagiarists confuse the issues. I’m guessing that Sen. Paul’s staff searched online for the term “eugenics” and came up with the Wikipedia reference to the Gattaca movie that was used in one of the speeches. Has Sen. Paul seen the movie? I wonder. Have you seen Gattaca? Referring to it was probably lost on most people anyway, so I don’t see how the movie helped clarify his position.
- Plagiarists manipulate meaning. By excerpting without attribution, a writer can copy/paste someone else’s words to make a point, even one that’s the opposite of the original writer’s intent.
- Plagiarists don’t know what they’re talking about. I think some people plagiarize because they think, “I couldn’t have said it better myself.” Like why bother to write it again? Also, writers identify their sources to validate a point they want to make, or to show where they learned something, not to pretend they are of one mind with another author.
According to dictionary.com, the word plagiarism comes from Latin, plagiarius, meaning “kidnapper, seducer, plunderer.” It has been used in the sense of a “literary thief” since the late 16th century. Back then, one had to plot to steal an inked parchment and connive to claim authorship. Today, borrowed genius is a click away, but so is detection. Why bother?
Patti Testerman is owner of Testerman Communications. Patti is an award-winning copywriter and creative director with a background of 20 years in print and interactive communications at agencies, corporations, and as owner of Testerman Communications. She earned her B.A. in English from the University of Delaware.