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What to do when you’re accused of plagiarism

Recently I got an email from one of the readers, saying he was accused of plagiarizing content, even though he ‘wrote all the words’ himself, and asking how to handle the problem. This is one of the most dreaded scenarios every freelance writer fears. Rightfully so – this is something that can break your career.

First of all – don’t plagiarize stuff. It’s unprofessional, it’s unethical and plain wrong. If you can’t come up with 20 sentences on your own, then you really shouldn’t be doing this work because it really shouldn’t be that much of a big deal.

Also, your clients can be in a heap of trouble because of plagiarized content. There are copyright rules in place which also cover blogs and similar content, and if you take someone else’s word without their permission and credit, they can expect a lawsuit. And nobody wants a lawsuit.

Is it possible to know all that, write your own content and still be called a plagiarist? Definitely.

Let’s take a look at what plagiarism in content marketing is, and how it’s determined. I’m not going to give you a scholarly definition, just what I learned through experience:

Whenever you string more than four exactly same words in a sentence, you might be called a plagiarist.

Harsh, ain’t it?

I think so, too – but that’s not the point here. The point is, people will just run your content through plagiarism checkers like TurnItIn or Copyscape and if they find these similarities, expect an email in all caps.

How plagiarism occurs and how to prevent it

You know that stupid feeling when a song gets stuck in your head and you simply can’t get it out? Sometimes, it can happen with writing content, as well. While researching a topic, you will read a LOT of stuff (at least you’re supposed to). Don’t be surprised if a sentence or two gets stuck in your head subconsciously, and you later write it down, thinking ‘oh my, how original’.

Obviously, whoever is on the receiving end of your content should not be worried about a sentence or two sounding like something else, but I’ve seen situations where people would freak out on even less.

So how to you react when someone calls you a plagiarist?

First, don’t panic. You don’t have to answer the email at the exact same moment you read it, so give it 15 minutes. Read through the content you provided, and take a look at where the ‘stolen’ bits are. Relax.

Then – be honest.

  • Explain how, while researching, you read so much stuff that sometimes sentences get stuck in your head, subconsciously.
  • Assure your client that you would never intentionally copy other people’s content.
  • Offer to re-write the piece, at no cost, to get rid of the ‘stolen’ content

All of this is possible only if you really weren’t trying to pass someone else’s work as your own. Never do that, and always make sure to be as original as possible. Being labeled a plagiarist can destroy your writing career. You may think that the internet is a large place, but stuff like that will follow you like a shadow.

Another thing I’ve started doing lately, just to be on the safe side, is running content through a plagiarism checker, myself. You can find plenty of those on the web, some of them are free to use. I found Small SEO’s plagiarism checker to work just fine. That way, you can test to see if any word formations have been used before and eliminate them, offering 100 percent clean writing.

Image Credit: Flickr / jobadge

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2 Replies to “What to do when you’re accused of plagiarism”

  1. For journalists who want their written pieces to be taken with respect, it’s highly important to care about the originality of their content, relevancy of the idea, and the way that information is given. The best proof in this case can be a detailed plagiarism report with adjustable search settings, provided by Unplag or an expert’s stylistic analysis. It seems that some editors have this special inner detector of originality. They just feel even a hint of dishonest attitude to the work.

    1. Yes, veteran editors can sniff it a mile away. A sudden change in the style of writing is probably the best way to spot a cheater. Also, the speed at which they deliver an article can be a good warning sign. Some things really require a serious time investment.

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