Thursday, February 20, 2014

NO FAIR! Three Steps for Avoiding Plagiarism

Plagiarism is far more common in textbook publishing than you might think, even health care educational publishing.

Plagiarism refers to the copying of someone else's work for your own purposes without giving proper attribution.

If you didn't say it, write it, draw it, or research it, it isn't yours to use.

Authors who probably should know better pick up content from a resource and then place it word-for-word, or nearly so, into their manuscript. The publisher does its best, of course, to identify such instances and to steer the authors away from that nefarious activity.

The majority of instances of plagiarism in educational publishing, I believe, stem from a lack of knowledge of the doctrine of fair use.The U.S. Copyright Office identifies four factors in determining fair use:
  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work
In general, works that use only a small amount of someone else's work — such as a quotation or in-line definition — are probably staying within the bounds of fair use, so the work can stay as is.

But picking up whole passages or entire tables, charts, or graphs? No way. That absolutely falls under the term plagiarism.

So, how can you avoid inadvertently plagiarizing someone's work? Here are three tips.

Tip #1  Use your own head, not someone else's

Most textbook authors write with two, three, or maybe four source books splayed around them as they type. They dip into the books as needed for clarity and then write what they've learned in their own words.

That's the way it's supposed to go. The way it's not supposed to go is to splay those books around, dip into the for information, and then write the same stuff you just read into your own own document.

So, get the info into your head and then out again with your own take on it.

Tip #2  Use the concept, not the words 

There's absolutely nothing wrong with looking at, understanding, even admiring the way someone has described a particular concept. It's too easy, though, to go from admiration to imitation.

It's unacceptable to say, well, that description of blood flow through the heart can't be written any better, so I'll just use it myself.

No, that just won't do. Write it again in your own words. You might surprise yourself at how much better your description is over that other one!

Tip #3  Use your own organization 

Let's say you find a list of adverse reactions for a drug in someone else's book, and you're tempted to use the same list. Don't pick up the sequence, change it around and reword the reactions as much as possible.

For example, here's a list of adverse reactions you find in a book you're using as a resource:
  • Palpitations 
  • Anxiety
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Tinnitus
Don't just copy that list. Double-check another source to see if other adverse reactions might be applicable, and if so, put them in the list. Is "headache" too general? Can you find evidence to support, oh, I don't know, "headache, most often frontal"? Then use that.

Once your list is complete, alphabetize it. Or list the reactions by word length, from shortest to longest. Do something different to make the list your own.


Just know that the work you do now to make your book your own could save you money — lots of it — down the road. Any plagiarism in your work could be grounds for a forfeiture of earned royalties, depending on your contract, or even future earnings.