In academe, as well as in the republic of letters, plagiarism remains the unforgivable sin. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that this dreadful word (and the activity for which it stands) has been in our language for four centuries, and further that it derives ultimately from “classical Latin plagiarius, person who abducts the child or slave of another, kidnapper, seducer, also a literary thief.”
Kidnapper of someone’s beloved words! No wonder we react so strongly.
The handbooks warn against plagiarism categorically enough. Look in the Writer’s Reference by Hacker and Sommers (eighth edition), for example, and you’ll see this typical declaration: “You must cite anything you borrow from a source, including direct quotations; statistics and other specific facts; visuals such as tables, graphs, and diagrams; and any ideas you present in a summary or paraphrase.
“Borrowing without proper acknowledgment,” the book adds, “is a form of dishonesty known as plagiarism.”
Which suggests that outside the literary and academic worlds, plagiarism is not a household word.
Nor is it so easily pinned down. There is, first of all, an exception for “common knowledge -- information that your readers may know or could easily locate in any number of reference sources,” the Writer’s Reference explains. This exception has existed since time immemorial, but it takes on new significance in these days of the Internet, where a quick googling or binging will reveal any number of reference sources, far more than could be imagined in the days of paper and ink.
Maybe that’s one reason why the Writer’s Reference cautions, “Definitions of plagiarism may vary; it’s a good idea to find out how your school defines academic dishonesty.”
Outside academe, policies and practice may be different. For example, here’s a paragraph that appeared last month in a feature article in a well-regarded newspaper:
“A study of the Pittsburgh Steelers published in 2015 in the American Journal of Sports Medicine was especially striking. It found that vitamin D levels were significantly lower in players with at least one bone fracture. Players who were released during the preseason due to injury or poor performance also had significantly lower D levels than those who made the team, the study found.”
The newspaper story included a link to the published study. The abstract read in part as follows:
“When controlling for number of professional years played, vitamin D levels were significantly lower in players with at least 1 bone fracture when compared with no fractures. Players who were released during the preseason because of either injury or poor performance had significantly lower vitamin D levels than did players who played in the regular season.”
Is this plagiarism? You decide.