Plagiarism Needs a Better Definition


There’s this parable that economists always tell.

Your car breaks down and you take it to the mechanic. He opens the hood and looks at your engine for a few seconds. Then he takes out a little hammer and taps it on the top. Suddenly it works again.

‘That’ll be $100,’ he says.
‘But all you did was make a little tap!’ you protest.
‘The tap, that’s $1,’ he says. ‘Knowing where to tap, that’s $99.’

Like everyone else who writes for a living, I’ve been reading the Fareed Zakaria plagiarism allegations with a knot in my stomach.

Here’s what we know so far:

In 2012, Zakaria blatantly yoinked a Jill Lepore (love her!) paragraph in an article he wrote about gun control. He got busted and he apologized.

Dude has written for legit every publication, so his current employer and his alma maters investigated his old work for copy-pastage. They apparently didn’t find anything because Zakaria was back at his desk after a few weeks.

Then, this summer, two bloggers with awesome pseudonyms started looking into his work more closely. They found dozens—no, seriously, dozens—of instances where Zakaria paraphrased from other authors without giving them credit.

Check out this clip from his book, with questionable phrasing in yellow:

Zakaria page

He also pilfered some figures from Michael Lewis’s (love him!) investigation of California’s financial problems.

zakaria lewis

Then Zakaria issued a suuuuper half-assed rebuttal (‘These are all facts, not someone else’s writing or opinions or expressions’) that was torn apart by theOur Bad Media bloggers (seriously read it, it’s the best post of this whole episode).

So those are the charges. Now we can start debating how pissed off about them we want to be. The Columbia Journalism Review (love you guys!) just put out a longform-ish dissection of what we talk about when we talk about plagiarism.

Lots of the debate, like every debate ever, hinges on definitions. Plagiarism sounds like a binary distinction—you copy-pasted or you didn’t—but looking at it so technocratically allows writers to do what Zakaria did, make slight modifications to other people’s sentences to slip past plagiarism-detection software

The real issue here is lack of attribution, which is just a Zakarian weasel-word for ‘stealing other people’s ideas’.

Let’s go back to the Michael Lewis example. I’m not particularly offended by the fact that Zakaria took a few of Lewis’s words and put them in the same order. As Zakaria himself points out in his rebuttal, there’s only so many ways to say something.

But dude, Lewis worked to get those numbers. Using them to make a broader point about municipal finance, the difficulty of balancing a budget in as a medium-size American city, that was Lewis’s idea to find those numbers and use them as an argument.

The defences of Zakaria usually stick to the technical definition. Here’s the CJR again:

Jacob Weisberg, head of the Slate Group, defended Zakaria’s mistakes as “minor, penny-ante stuff” unworthy of the “plagiarism” label, according to The Daily Beast. “I’m not sure we have a strict operational definition of plagiarism at Slate,” he added in an email to CJR. “To me, plagiarism involves not just using someone else’s research or ideas without credit, but also taking passages of prose and distinctive language.”

Fred Hiatt, Zakaria’s editor at the Washington Post, prefers the term ‘improper attribution’, which sounds about as serious as a parking ticket.

I was listening to a badass podcast this morning called ‘America’s Diversity Explosion Is Coming Just in Time.’ The interviewee, a Brookings Institution researcher named William Frey, wrote a book about how America’s changing racial and age-al makeup is going to remake the country for the next generation. It’s a provocative argument, and he uses hella stats to make it: About 80 percent of people over 65 are white, compared to about 50 percent of people under 17. Fifteen percent of all marriages are multi-racial. Blacks vote for Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 87 percent.

All those numbers are publicly available, they’re mostly from the Census and shit, but knowing where to look, pulling them out, putting them in that order, drawing conclusions from them, that is work. This dude has read and thought and written way more about this than I ever have, and it would be such a dickmove for me to copy the work part and then be like ‘the numbers were there all along!’ Zakaria is deliberately mixing up the tap with knowing where to tap.

Which leads to my proposal for how we should consider these cases in the future: What would the original author think if they read your summary? If Frey, the Brookings dude, read the above two paragraphs, where it’s clear that it’s his ideas and my summary, I don’t expect he’d feel robbed. Even if I happen to have used phrasing similar to his or a few words in the same order, it washes out under the credit I’ve given him.

When my development article came out, I sent it to the authors whose books I’d summarized. I wanted to share it with them, not just the story but the experience of getting their ideas and examples out to a broader audience. I wasn’t worried they’d find the article, I was worried they wouldn’t retweet it.

Part of the reason I do this is just basic politeness and golden-rule-following, but it’s also a sort of self-regulation mechanism. Knowing, before I even start writing, that the authors I’m discussing are going to read what I say and think about them, it makes me more careful—not just in my phrasing but in my conclusions.

That’s why I’m always arguing for more collaboration between journalists and their sources. Personally, I’m utterly terrified of accidentally plagiarizing something. I know the ‘I forgot to add a footnote!’ excuse sounds like ‘I have lots of black friends!’—but losing track of sources, forgetting that a sentence in your notes is someone else’s words and not your own, it’s a genuine risk. Working with the sources of your ideas is the only reliable protection against inadvertently stealing the expression of them.

I’m not suggesting the plagiarized-from authors should be given responsibility for Zakaria’s fate, or that every single article should be approved by its sources before its released. But read those passages above (especially the one from his book! Phwoof!) and ask yourself, ‘if you wrote the original text, would you feel comfortable with Zakaria’s version?’

Personally, I wouldn’t be pissed that he stole my words, I’d be pissed that he stole the thing I was using my words to describe. Detecting plagiarism doesn’t require more sophisticated software, it requires more sophisticated ethics.

Under the current definition, plagiarism asks whether two authors are tapping in the same place. We need one that acknowledges the work of knowing where to tap.
Photo by Seung-Hwan Oh


Filed under America, Journalism, Personal, Serious

107 responses to “Plagiarism Needs a Better Definition

  1. Really fantastic informative read, thanks!

  2. When I worked in the states my district hired an asst. Superintendent who created a new reform plan. It took the teachers less than 24 hours after his presentation to realize there was no way he wrote the plan. It was taken, word for word, off of a school district website in Salt Lake City. The plan was a few years old. The plan bankrupted that school district. The guy didn’t even try to steal a plan that worked.

    Here is the best part. Nothing happened to the guy. He wasn’t reprimanded, the school board didn’t flinch. The plan went away quietly.

    But as teachers we were hacked off. How is this ok? He stated it wasn’t plagiarism. The plan wasn’t copy written. So legally everything was copacetic. And this guy was supposed to be our curricular leader. Geesh!

    • I was under the impression that copyright existed automatically, unless an author explicitly modified their entitlement to be regarded as the copyright owner (by, for example, sticking a ‘copyleft’ or creative commons attribution license on the document). Hence the awkward ‘the author asserts’ phrase that’s in most copyright declarations. And that the moral right to be recognised as the author (whether or not it allows you to get paid or control distribution or licensing) cannot be alienated. Ever.

      If the first point is correct vis-a-vis US law then your Asst. Superintendent was in fact acting illegally, and so were the school board by failing to act upon the law or to advise you correctly about the law. If the second is correct, then the original author still has the right to have the record redressed.

      Although, of course, courting fame for bankrupting schools would not be a great career move.

  3. That’s the problem w/ copyright law. Facts are not subject to intellectual property laws, but phrasing is. It’s totally outdated and doesn’t acknowledge the amount of effort it takes to create “facts” by analyzing tons of data.

  4. I agree, we need to redefine plagiarism and re-educate everybody about what it means. In junior high I was told “say it in your own words,” to rephrase information. And that’s not unimportant. But we should begin teaching at a younger age that even paraphrased information needs to be cited.

  5. I think in re-defining plagiarism we can easily get bogged down in a murky mire of legalities and opinions that will take a life time to sort out. Most can easily see what is right and wrong, a few will have the inner regulator to choose right; but making it a legal issue will require a lot more thought than I have the energy for. I’m not even sure there are any original thoughts left to be written. “Nothing new under the sun” comes to mind when pondering this and even that is a borrowed quote.

  6. So, I read a lot on the internet, and I really love what you’ve written here and how hard you worked to cite everything. Not plagiarizing is a lot about working hard. Sometimes, I read a vast amount and then think on it and come up with an idea in the future using all that information and really have no idea how to give credit back to everyone who shaped my thoughts. What is the best way to give credit when you are somewhat removed from the original idea maker on a certain point? Also, sometimes I feel like I did the research, then .. how do I explain – it’s like building a pyramid and every brick you use came from somewhere, but you built the pyramid. How do you give respect where it is due and still build the pyramid when you don’t remember where all the bricks came from?

    • May

      I don’t have all the answers to this, but I guess a big part of it would be having a complete bibliography of everything you read while thinking about stuff. Different to a reference list, which is the list of the things you’ve directly cited as being the source of a phrase or fact, but still giving credit to the building blocks.

    • I email links and articles to an account I have set up for my writing. You can also use Evernote which lets you take clippings from the web and add them to your notebooks.

  7. very informative, thank you for this post!

  8. Wow, a lot of very good info and comments here! Thanks.

  9. Reblogged this on Psychology & Statistics Tutor:Mentor and commented:
    Food for thought in the age of plagiarism~

  10. Reblogged this on clvrmoons and commented:
    Big agreeeeee!!😍😍😍🙋👍👌

  11. I agree with your point, Sabina. I did not understand the full definition of plagiarism until I entered high school, and I was given very similar instruction to yours: “use your own words”. Because I was told to “use my own words”, I started to assume that my paraphrasing was not plagiarism and I was not corrected until I was a JUNIOR in high school. Today I am an English major and understand the importance of citing everything. If I become an English teacher, plagiarism will be one of the first topics I review with my students.

  12. I am notoriously bad at remembering who or what my sources are, and even worse at reminding myself to take notes to counter the matter. Of course, I am not some famous dude making money with other people’s ideas. Nobody would think of accusing me of plagiarism, because nobody particularly cares.

  13. Alex Roan

    This is a new topic for me, so was really interesting to read.

    I think taking a step back, to a certain extend everything we do is plagiarism. The way the brain works is it observes, remembers and then at a later time recalls.

    I think rather than just ‘work’ or ‘effort’ spent to analyse or reform information we have taken in, it could also be measure by whether we made new conclusions or new connections between information and ideas.

    So if we are just repeating data or opinions as expressed by others we have to always give credit, but if we create something new then we should still always credit sources, but no necessarily our own statements.

    I guess part of the challenge is what makes sense and what can be enforced in a consistent way.

    Interesting discussion.

  14. Reblogged this on aljok.

  15. Reblogged this on matangala.

  16. Wow!
    this is a well studied write up ,but I believe plagiarism should be monitored at different levels and platforms. Yes think of it,if we take the very meaning of the word plagiarism by definition and input it in our real life settings, then i would say at one point or the other we have all plagiarized even without knowing it.

  17. Reblogged this on Traces of the Soul and commented:
    Too often this is taken to lightly…a very informative read!

  18. Pingback: Plagiarism Needs a Better Definition | Something big is brewing!

  19. If everyone who plagiarized at the universities,high schools,middle schools,community colleges and elsewhere was expelled for doing so, it would hurt the chances of good folks to become educated….on one hand. It appears plagiarism no longer matters in the digital world. To Wit: stealing music movies and TV shows is as common as breathing,perhaps more so. Just like musicians who now MUST SELL tickets,thus play well live (many bands in the 70s flat out sucked live) to make money, to make money as a journalist or writer, you have to gain an audience and quickly get your style to be known,or it will be ripped off all over the world. David Sedaris has a style and thus can be helped by copyright laws. The digital age,however,makes most other entertainment producers,in film music and tv vulnerable to being ripped off. It’s a sign of people needing to be famous, and being lazy at the same time.

  20. Interesting but I fear a lot of people take short cuts and I suspect often that is what it is – a short cut. Inexcusable but human.

  21. I’m looking at the screenshots of Gerges vs Zakaria, and Zakaria is definitely giving credit to Gerges – twice on the Zakaria’s page, in fact. However, what I can’t explain is why the percentages are different: 12% changed to 29%, 74% to 85%, 86% to 90%.

  22. Pingback: Shared from WordPress | Xxxlone's Blog

  23. Academic dishonesty is an epidemic in universities due to the ease of cut and paste plagiarism. Professors spend inordinate amounts of time ferreting it out, and disciplinary processes are log-jammed with caught-out students. It takes a very skilled plagiarist to run the gauntlet unscathed, get through college and receive a degree. Hence we see that the plagiarists showing up in journalism are an elite group, sporting a well-honed sophistication and a book bag full of gray-area excuses.

  24. Congrats on your freshly pressed! Please check out my blog if you get the chance!
    I loved this post! It really made me think!

  25. I always tell my students: do your research, but when you are writing, don’t have your sources open next to you. You can always go back and check later for accuracy, but on a first draft write without the sources at hand. If you don’t know your research well enough to do this, you haven’t learned enough from your research. And if you don’t have sources in front of you, you won’t plagiarize. Zakaria’s defense shows that he never learned really what plagiarism is.

  26. Brilliant. Very informative. Writing can be a hot bed leaving you open to allegations. Plagiarism is not black or white and when researching a subject one could accidently plagiarise another’s work because as you say there’s only so many ways to write something.

  27. Reblogged this on Perspectivas da vida and commented:

  28. Reblogged this on emulatethereflection and commented:
    Plagiarism is writing to read not writing to write.

  29. Is it really about attribution? Even if he did, I think the original authors would still be upset. As you said, they worked to get those numbers, and attribution doesn’t pay the rent.

  30. Plagiarism is writing to read, not writing to write.

  31. Reblogged this on Reflexiones .

  32. I wonder if some of this is a workload issue. Is journalism so much work that a large number of journalist will end up cutting corners and committing plagiarism

  33. Reblogged this on msktb.

  34. Everybody is a plagiarist.If you were not then you would not know how to tie your shoe lace.The only thing is that you should contribute as well.

  35. Reblogged this on .

  36. I’ve been blogging since August and got ripped off for the first time last week. A fellow blogger whom I had visited the day before swooped in, “liked” 2 of my articles and proceeded to splice them together- not so subtly.
    I suppose the MOST sincere for of flattery is plagiarism??

    Thank you for writing this and giving a voice to writers who have been pilfered for scraps.

  37. Nice post 🙂

  38. A friend told me that a paper she wrote detected 40% of plagiarized content. Fortunately, the 40% was from a paper that she wrote and submitted to a different class two weeks earlier. Is it considered plagiarism if you are reworking your own content? What is the rule for being able to submit work that you posed on a different occasion?

  39. Reblogged this on pqchelsea.

  40. Pingback: Being a Journalist is Scary |

  41. Plagiarism? If we copy something like words or design from the internet and we implement it a little bit, is it consider as a plagiarism?

  42. Reblogged this on Mixic.

  43. Reblogged this on madedigitaldotme and commented:
    are we all not subjective? Therefore we all Plagiarise,? Innovation!

  44. Love the photo

  45. So true. it is interesting reading these stories but the comments are also as interesting. Being a student, ask to do research. you read so much on the internet and It is hard citing all these sources, but it is also right to do so even after you put it in your own words or come up with your own ideas from what you have read. Good blog

  46. Yeah, that sounds just about like what my mechanic does. The problem is, now every time I fix my own engine using that same trick, I get a bill from him for $99.

  47. Great! Really appreciate this- author to author.

  48. Reblogged this on Seeking Solace and commented:
    made me rethink of all the facts and data I’ve put into all my editorial articles

  49. Great article,,, thx for sharing

  50. Great information thanks for sharing

  51. Not a very convincing argument, is it? WORK is not what is being measured by a piece of writing. If we were judging work then I would expect to see ALL the references an author used, the calendar he referenced and the dictionary. We are judging how convincingly the facts are ordered and composed. If the composition is faked by short-circuiting the process without attributions, I seriously do not care how much WORK was put into it, anymore than I would a worker who dug a ditch while I paid him to paint a house.

  52. Note that , sometimes people can think alike and.. since i know nothing of this Zakaria case, i wont defend him but speak out for people who are unknowingly writing something they dont know is in another person’s book . It is possible to think alike and one cannot be held responsible for writing their thoughts down , because , really , that person may not have known that someone else had written it .

  53. Fantastic blog post! So glad I stumbled on this.

  54. Plagiarism is theft. And the thieving is a perfection of ones ability to adapt another’s perfection to their own. Hence, the borrowing of greatness. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Often Imitated, Never Duplicated. Duped by the thieving scheme we all call Plagiarism. Gag me. This article is sincerely profound and rebuttled by swift commentary! I loved it!

  55. Reblogged this on Ketchastar and commented:
    Plagiarism is theft. And the thieving is a perfection of ones ability to adapt another’s perfection to their own. Hence, the borrowing of greatness. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Often Imitated, Never Duplicated. Duped by the thieving scheme we all call Plagiarism. Gag me. This article is sincerely profound and rebuttled by swift commentary! I loved it!

  56. Reblogged this on Crazy/Lazy.

  57. Reblogged this on dahoward61 and commented:
    I write menus – beverage and food. I always try to give credit for my inspirations. Colleagues think it foolish of me to give recipes to just about anyone that asks (for free).

  58. Reblogged this on El blog de Fran Guerrero and commented:
    Los contenidos que publicas en Social Media tienen que ser originales. Aquí una interesante reflexión sobre lo que entendemos por plagio.

  59. Thanks for sharing, I just wonder how some have the courage to use the works of others!!

  60. It’s very very good. Loved it

  61. Pl

    Apropos of nothing, FZ came over to our house- he was in school at one of the big Ivy Leagues…we were in holiday mode: fun and festive and he scoured my English Major bookshelves…I think he was planning something…

  62. Reblogged this on shockysblog.

  63. First time coming into this site, and I must admit; it’s pretty damn cool to see others also care about plagiarism! I love literature…. Honest literature, news, etc. You express yourself very well! Thank you for your time and sincerity; on plagiarism.

  64. Reblogged this on trancenerd.

  65. Pingback: The Plagiarism Question: On Originality and Creativity | sherinaspeaks

  66. Love this post!! I had some thoughts on it too, so I wrote about it on my blog. I’m not sure if it linked to yours as I’m not 100% confident in my knowledge of pingbacks… but anyways, in the spirit you mentioned of sharing with the author who sparked your idea… here it is 🙂

  67. Reblogged this on nana3priyatno and commented:
    buat dibaca-baca sekedar untuk mengingatkan para pemirsa….hehehe

  68. nice post !. keep it up brother 🙂

  69. I appreciate your taking on this subject, and it served the purpose of getting me to put some thought into it.
    That having been conceded, a fact that is publicly available can’t really be stolen. The rub exists in the original interpretation of such numbers and, as you note, the blatant theft of another’s diligence.
    It’s not simple, though. Sometimes different writers do take parallel paths. Some degree of certainty should be in place.
    Anyway, thanks for provoking consideration.

  70. you’re being a bit harsh, aren’t you? It takes first rate talent for a second rate hack to not only recognise talent but to appropriate it without being detected.

  71. Reblogged this on ebabyhenn.

  72. I really appreciate this article. I can tell you that as a writer myself I too am terrified of accidentally copying someone, and I always try to give credit where credit is due. But you’re right! It is very easy to accidentally slip up. Zakaria’s plagiarism seems a bit more direct than a slip up though, to me at least. Far too much writing has been worded the same without appropriate credit.

  73. Reblogged this on sambix.

  74. In your first example, Zaharias is absolutely giving credit to Gerges. I wonder if you actually read both? Should I credit List of X above for agreeing ?

    We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us ( heard and read this many times without credit), and we could barely write a sentence that in some way did not relate to knowledge given to us by someone else.
    As I am in my 70’s, I couldn’t possibly remember where every concept came from, or which exactly is mine, or someone else’s, or a combination of many. So must I reference every book I’ve ever read, and every class I’ve ever attended, if I write any thought I might have? Or should I not share my thoughts and experiences at all for fear of missing a reference?
    Certainly, if I know I am using specific materials from someone else, I must give credit. That’s only fair play. But with 6 Billion on the planet, it is possible several people have the same idea at the same time.
    I had exactly the same thought as List of X, as soon as I read your first example and before I read his/her comments. This whole concept seems to be getting carried away.

  75. I would suggest that we do not need complicated ethics or more rules or better software. Rather, we need to instill in children and young adults in school proper ethical concern for others. I fought this mad-demon plagiarism throughout my teaching career. Then a so-called colleague plagiarized an entire scholarly article to meet the publishing requirement of her Fulbright Fellowship. I expected a resignation; I expected the administration to can her or at least punish her for her deliberate, shameless theft of someone else’s words and ideas. Instead, they gave her a renewed contract with a raise and used her to promote the scholarly expertise of their faculty. I raised a stink that forced her resignation, and her friends and the admin made my life a living hell, claiming I had destroyed the school’s reputation! The only one punished for her egregious behavior was me, evidently the only professor on campus with academic integrity and a backbone. The only way to stop this nonsense for people who don’t get it in school is for their editors or superiors to render swift, terrible justice. But I’m not bitter…

  76. Reblogged this on When I Bubble Up and commented:
    This is a must read…! All the sh*t comes about: beware of plagiarism. #campus-thing, my campus currently.

  77. Reblogged this on imaz78.

  78. Really interesting is where it’s a couple of words but the words are material.
    The issues highlighted is why poorly researched information gets put around

  79. Reblogged this on vancitydowntown.

  80. Pingback: Plagiarism – Riri Mari