Journalism Lessons: The ABCs of Not Plagiarizing

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Craig Silverman offers a list of tips for aspiring non-plagiarists. (Photo from his bio on

In the aftermath of last months plagiarism scandals at the New York Times and Daily Beast, there were lots of comments on what plagiarists and the publications that employ plagiarists do wrong. But this week a new message emerged highlighting what non-plagiarists (and aspiring non-plagiarists) can do right.

Craig Silverman at the Columbia Journalism Review gives a list of plagiarism-avoidance tips in a February 26 column, writing that he hadn’t yet seen a “definitive guide” for journalists looking to keep themselves from copying. Whether you believe the inadvertent-plagiarism excuse or not, Silverman says, it makes sense to have a list of best-practices to ‘help journalists avoid accidental copying.”

The first tip is a simple lesson he credits to Poynter: Write. All. The. Time. “Expressing your own thoughts and using your own words will force your brain to flex the self-expression neurons, rather than the repetition neurons.”

Also “Keep research separate from writing. Don’t copy-and-paste other people’s words and work into your draft until you’re ready to quote from it,” Silverman recommends.

Scott Rosenberg at PBS’s Idea lab writes, “It is not hard to train yourself, as you take notes, to distinguish who said what. You do it when you interview people; you do it when you copy text from other sources. In order to write for public consumption you should be able to meet this minimum standard of self-organization.”

Silverman adds some very practical steps like color-coding sources–“This will help you instantly recognize other people’s words when you paste them into your story,” he writes–or actually typing quotation marks around quotes as you take notes. “Whether taking notes by hand, transcribing an interview, or copying text from another source, always use quotation marks. This helps prevent you from forgetting to add them later.”

He also cites a iMediaEthics favorite,

Live to link. For those producing online content, link as much as possible. This reinforces the act of attribution. For print and broadcast people, stop the silly practice of not crediting competitors.

Finally, Silverman recommends potential copiers take the role of plagiarist-hunter. Google yourself, he writes, before someone else does it for you.

Hopefully countless journalists have now read Silverman’s post, and can no longer use ignorance or accident as an excuse. (Not to mention any of the other classic shrugs…)

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Journalism Lessons: The ABCs of Not Plagiarizing

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