Plagiarism: The Biggest Digital Content Sin

By Adam Hansen
Plagiarism: The Biggest Digital Content Sin


In the digital content world, the worse thing you can do is plagiarize someone else’s work.

Not only are you stealing someone’s intellectual property and using it for your own gain, but you’re risking your site’s standings with Google and even legal action.

Just say “NO,” people!

But not all plagiarism is the work of evil content copiers twisting their mustaches and laughing maniacally in their super villain hideouts. 

In fact, you could unintentionally be stealing digital content from others and not even realize it.

Luckily for us, The Visual Communication Guy mapped how you can figure out if you’re guilty of this most heinous crime in a killer infographic.

Not only can you easily find out if you committed plagiarism or not but he’ll also let you know just how much of a horrible person you are (in terms of digital content creation, that is. I'm sure you're a lovely person in all other respects). 

Here’s some of the biggest takeaways from this infotastic piece of digital content:

50 Shades of Plagiarism

Many of you might be surprised to find that there is quite a spectrum when it comes to plagiarism.

Yes, we all know you can’t copy and paste all or parts of other people’s work and claim it as your own. If not, I assume you’re some sort of sociopath and beyond the help of this blog. Please seek immediate counseling. 

But you might be somewhat surprised that the following also fall under the plagiarism umbrella, to varying degrees:

  • Basing your piece off the ideas of others without citing or crediting them.
  • Misinterpreting the original author’s content to support your argument.
  • Incorrectly citing the source.
  • Not verifying the validity and legitimacy of your sources.
  • Using the style or organization of another’s work without proper credit.

You might think these are minor plagiarism “mistakes,” but it’s a slippery slope.

It’s like littering. There is no trash can in sight, so what harm will it really do to drop that wrapper on the ground? It’s not like you’re dumping toxic chemicals in the pond baby panda bears drink out of, right?

Well, if everyone thought that way, our planet would be even more of a mess than it already is. Likewise, if everyone just shrugged off the seriousness of properly crediting and citing their digital content sources, the Internet would be filled with (even more) junky, poorly researched content.

What You Can Do

If you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem.

Don’t go over to the Dark Side of digital content creation. Make sure you’re doing the following:

Check Your Self (Preferably Before You Wreck Yourself)

Start at the top of the “Did I Plagiarize?” chart and work your way down. If you answered “Yes” to all of those seven questions, then you’re solid.

If not, it’s back to the drawing board.

Find Reliable Sources

The Internet is one of mankind’s greatest inventions when it comes to communication and information. It’s literally only eclipsed by speech and written language. But as the barriers to information sharing and creation are obliterated, the ability to commit and likelihood of plagiarism have dramatically increased.

You might be an unknowing participant in this chain of digital content pillaging, but that’s on you to stop, Chief. For example:

  • Don’t use Wikipedia as a Source: Wikipedia is awesome and delivers tons of legitimate information to the masses, but that doesn’t mean you can take it all at face value. Check out the original sources that the articles cite and use those instead. Not only will you be doing the right thing; you’ll have a better understanding of the original author’s content, intent and purpose.
  • No More Web 2.0: User created content on large sites like Squidoo, WikiHow, HubPages and other web 2.0 platforms should be trusted even less than Wikipedia as sources. If the pages reference their original content, then go to the source to make sure your information is correct. If they don’t attribute any sources, then they are not credible and should be ignored.
  • Google Chunks of Content: Take a line or two of content from a source and put it in Google. If it shows up elsewhere and those pages don’t cite your source as the original, then you have an issue on your hands.

Plagiarism Just Isn’t Cool

If you’re a normal, law-abiding person like most of us, you wouldn’t walk into a business and just start stealing their stuff. So, why would you think it’s OK to steal digital content or intellectual property?

Not only are you hurting the original creators, but you’re risking a lot yourself.

At the very least, Google and the other search engines don’t rank duplicate content very well and you risk losing your rankings and possibly even being de-indexed. On the more severe spectrum you could be guilty of a crime or in violation of civil laws, leaving yourself open to serious legal issues. Copyright law isn't the easiest topic to understand, but if you plan on getting heavily into content creation (such as publishing your own books), it's definitely worth educating yourself on the basics. 

Look, we’re all for being inspired by other people’s ideas. We don’t live in an information vacuum and many of the greatest ideas in the history of mankind built upon the information around them.

In fact, my wonderful editor, Melissa, found the article and infographic for this post originally. She got some ideas about a post and then passed them on to me. I took the original content, her direction and my own thoughts and came up original content that applies to our subject matter. [Editor's note: Awwww, thanks. =) ]

We’ve talked about content curation frequently on this blog. It’s perfectly legit… as long as you credit the original source(s) correctly and thoroughly. There are plenty of ways to create great content without infringing upon the rights of others.

What have been your experiences with plagiarism? After reading this post and checking out the infographic, did you discover you might have committed some shade of plagiarism unknowingly? Leave us your questions and we'll do our best to answer them! 

Nanci Ayres 10 years ago
If you take another persons article and spin it is it still considered plagiarism?
Melissa Johnson 10 years ago
Nanci, yes, if you spin someone else's original work and try to pass it off as your own, that certainly would count as a form of plagiarism. The words may be different, but the ideas are still someone else's. They've put the time and effort into researching and writing, and they deserve credit for that.
Roberto Esposito 10 years ago
Adam. Given this data, how would you suggest choosing a niche to publish in? For example, I don't see the Law of Attraction as a niche where much more original content can be produced. So I reason to believe people are spinning terms of their own in an effort to be original and not "plagiarize" others work. Essentially using different means to achieve the same end...only the means aren't really that different, just cloaked under an authors cool keyword. It seems like a Catch-22. On one side, it's profitable, on the other hand there seems to be tremendous competition to create Original content. In many ways, I see this keeping people from ever taking action in the first place. Are there cases where genuine "original" content has been found to be not so genuine?
Melissa Johnson 10 years ago
Hi, Roberto!

You're right, in some niches coming up with original content can be a challenge, especially when there are a lot of big-name authorities on a topic.

I would argue that original content is still very much do-able, however. You can cover the same major ideas. The value you add comes from the additional insights you provide. These could be personal stories and experiences, or other clear examples and analogies.

People want information, but they like stories. Stories sell. So tell a story in addition to explaining a topic, and I think you'll be fine.
Abdul KadirAbdullah 10 years ago
Hi Adam,

I am a newbie. No argument that plagiarism is a "sin." When we request and pay for written articles from iWriter or from fiver's service with the intention to use it in our own blog, websites or email, do we consider the article as ours since we request and paid for it in the first place or must we give credit to the original writer regardless. Maybe you can advise what is the right way to use the article requested from iWriter or Fiver but simultaneously avoid plagiarism. Appreciate your comment. Thank you. : )

Abdul Kadir
Melissa Johnson 10 years ago
Hi, Abdul!

As someone who's done quite a bit of freelancing, here's my advice:

Sites like oDesk and Elance typically have non-disclosure agreements already built in. The work contractors submit belongs to the person who hired them. That means you are not obligated to give them credit. Ghostwriting is alive and well, and there's nothing wrong with that.

I'm not sure about Fiverr -- I would read their terms of service or contact their support team to find out more.

You can, if you choose, give your writers credit. However, I don't think it's worthwhile to do so unless you have a long-term relationship with that contractor. I.e., they write a blog post for you regularly (one a week, or 2 or 3 times a week or whatever).

There are advantages to the NDA, too. It helps protect your business and maintain your image.

If you want, you can do things like allow your contractors to use what they create in a profile. Again, this is optional and depends on what works best for your business.

I recommend running articles you get from freelancers through Copyscape or other plagiarism checkers. There are great contractors out there. Others....not so much.

You get what you pay for in many cases. I've been contacted many times by clients who want me to fix something they got by hiring a very low-priced writer whose first language probably wasn't English. Sometimes it's not salvageable. Do your research and pick the best writer you can afford for your budget. That'll help with getting great, non-plagiarized content, too.

I hope this helps! Let me know if you have any more questions.