July 2, 2008
Over the past few weeks, I've had a few run-ins with plagiarism in various forms and thought I'd take the opportunity to have a little rant about it. My hope is that by discussing it, people will become more educated about the issue and perhaps it will become a little less rampant online.
Plagiarism as it relates to SEO (or the Internet in general) is not quite the same as copyright infringement. With copyright infringement, a person might take an entire article or other written work from someone and copy and paste it as is, claiming to be the author, or providing no author at all. Copyright infringement is a huge problem for anyone who publishes regularly online, and it is fairly easy to spot. You can paste a sentence from your article into Google (using quotes) and see what else shows up in the search results. Don't be surprised to see some versions of your work under someone else's name!
Plagiarism, on the other hand, is more insidious. One definition of plagiarism (from Dictionary.com) is: "The unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one's own original work."
Notice that it says "close imitation" and also that it mentions "thoughts" and not just the language. In other words, one could plagiarize an article or parts of an article without actually using the same words that the original author used. If someone read an article and then rewrote it point for point, but used their own words, it would still be plagiarism. Even if they only took a few points and completely rewrote them, it would be plagiarism because the ideas and thoughts presented were not their own but someone else's.
The fact is that most plagiarists do use some of the exact words of the original, and that's how they get caught. From what I've seen, it appears that they copy and paste whole paragraphs into their article, and then just rearrange the words a bit and perhaps add a few of their own. This may make it tricky to spot via traditional copyright infringement detection methods, but not impossible. And certainly, when the original author of the material reads the plagiarized version, they recognize it in an instant.
I haven't yet decided whether plagiarists (a) were not taught how to properly cite other people's work and give credit where credit is due, (b) have no idea that it's wrong, or (c) are just lazy and/or unoriginal and don't care. Or perhaps it's some combination of those. It's hard to imagine anyone graduating from college (or high school, actually) and not knowing how and why to properly cite sources. I do think our educational system is partly to blame because some schools let kids get away with plagiarism without realizing it.
For some plagiarists, it might even be an ego thing. Perhaps they want people to think they're smart and that they thought up everything on their own, and therefore don't cite the original sources. Others may actually have no idea how to figure stuff out on their own, and they can only parrot what others say because they really don't understand the underlying concepts.
Regardless of the reasons, plagiarism runs rampant online and specifically in the SEO world. It didn't take me more than a few minutes to find a couple of plagiarized articles at Sphinn in the "what's new" section. The good news is that all the articles I checked that had made the front page did not appear to be plagiarized, so it appears the democratic voting process at Sphinn does work, and people can actually separate the wheat from the chaff. It would have been extremely disheartening had I seen any big-name SEO/SEM authors plagiarizing stuff.
Perhaps that's the lesson in all of this...if you really want to become a well-known and/or respected writer online, you will need to have original thoughts and be able to put them in writing. Plagiarized articles or blog posts will get you only so far; in the end, you're really only fooling yourself.
Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, a Boston SEO Agency.
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