Plagiarism sucks: How to avoid stealing other people's work

Mar 4, 2016

This is a post from a member of the Freelancers Union community. If you’re interested in sharing your expertise, your story, or some advice you think will help a fellow freelancer out, feel free to send your blog post to us here.

Remember Stephen Glass (or the movie based on his misconduct, Shattered Glass)? What about Jayson Blair? These two journalists joined the big leagues of plagiarism when they were caught fabricating stories for the New Republic and the New York Times, respectively. As shocked as we all were (especially that two venerable media institutions could be duped by a couple of charlatans), plagiarism is still alive and well.

And that sucks. Stealing always sucks, but stealing other people’s ideas is about as low as you can go. After all, what do each of us humans truly possess other than our health, ideas, intellect, and emotions? Not much.

We creatives are especially vulnerable. With our writing, photographs, graphic designs, and other intellectual property on the Internet, stealing copyrighted material has gotten really easy. So don’t be a lazy jerk. Don’t steal. Instead, follow these guidelines to ensure you avoid stealing other people’s work.

Accept that original ideas are not the end-all-be-all

Newsflash: You do not have to dream up new, mind-blowing ideas every time you sit down to write a blog post. And I don’t think anyone expects you to, either. (Unless you’re Stephen Hawking – then it’s pretty much expected.)

Plus, by quoting or citing other sources, it shows that you are well-read, staying current on industry trends, and generally know what you’re talking about. Let’s not forget that the entire point of writing blog posts is to share your knowledge. Well, your knowledge also includes the information you read, absorb and integrate into your work.

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Quote the source

If you truly love the wording in a passage that someone else wrote, quote it. Sometimes, the original wording is more powerful. In this case, you’ll want to do this:

“Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.”
Albert Einstein

You can also get fancy and indent the quote, italicize it, bold it, use a different font for contrast, or apply some other cool treatment so it stands out.

Always cite the source

While you were snoozing through English class in elementary school (and probably middle and high school, too), your teacher was arming you with information you’d be using the rest of your life. Like, how to properly cite a source. Remember footnotes and endnotes?

Of course, now that we’re all digital, all you have to do is add a link, which you can do in one of three ways:

  1. Add a link to the keyword: According to new research on social media usage published by Forrester….
  2. Add a link to the name of the source in the sentence: According to new research on social media usage published by Forrester….
  3. Add a link to the name of the source after the sentence: According to new research on social media usage, …. (Forrester Research)

I would be remiss to add that including outbound links is very good for SEO. Search engines reward blog posts that link to other high-quality, reputable websites.

Talk about the source – and why it’s so great

As I mentioned above, using other sources is a huge positive for your reputation (people will trust that you are on top of trends) and SEO (search engines will trust your website more). So let’s take it one step further, shall we?

Talk about why you love this source and their blog post so much (you can even include a link to their site’s home page or the author’s bio page). You’ll earn some nice karma points for spreading the love, and you’ll get on the radar of the blogger or journalist who wrote the original piece. The last time I checked, good karma and a bigger network are both very good things.

Has anyone ever stolen your work? What did you do (after you called them a lazy jerk)?

Monika Jansen is a copywriter and editor who is happiest pounding out blog posts, website content, and other marketing materials for her clients, who tend to be freelancers, tech companies and small business owners. She is also a blogger for Groupon and You can follow her on Twitter (@monikacjansen) or find her on LinkedIn.