Backscatter: The Plagiarism Trap

By Don Christiansen

Is it ever permissible to plagiarize? Not an easy question to answer. Even the experts do not always agree on the definitions of plagiarism in its many variations.

Plagiarism is generally defined as appropriating portions of published material and failing to credit the original source. Claiming to be the originator of an existing idea or concept may also be labelled plagiarism.

Those most likely to be accused of plagiarism are journalists, academics and researchers, and students.

Journalism and Plagiarism

Traditionally, a well-reported journalism piece would consist largely of input that the writer obtained directly from primary sources. Any input previously published or obtained by a competitive publication would be duly credited. The likelihood and perhaps even the condoning of plagiarism by journalists has been enhanced by the limitless resources of the Internet. Under a tight deadline, a journalist can do the required reporting while seated before a laptop. The collection of the needed input for a news story is termed aggregation, and aggregation apps may be available to “surface content” for a given project. The reporter will then “curate” the acquired information.

In curation, paragraphs or entire sections from previously published stories may be melded together, sometimes in quotes or paraphrased, with credit given to the original sources. Or, based on the aggregated material, the story may be rewritten and bylined by the rewriter. Journalists who have done the original research and reporting are often pleased to note when credit is given to them on the republished work. Yet they sometimes wonder why some monetary compensation is not due them.


But wait. What if, under deadline pressure, a reporter merely strings together sentences and an occasional paragraph from his aggregated material, and with no reference to original sources? Isn’t that plagiarism? Veteran journalists point out that newspapers have for years relied on wire services and syndicates for inputs to breaking news stories and feature content, but with the expectation and often the requirement that the sources will be acknowledged.

Columnists, as opposed to news reporters, are more likely to deal with opinion and philosophical issues, not breaking news. They may sometimes run aground when adapting an anecdote from a fellow writer’s column and using descriptive terminology that too closely echoes that of the first writer. As an example, Max Rudin’s 1997 article in American Heritage about martinis stated that the martini “had acquired formal perfection, a glamorous mystique.” A year later, Fareed Zakarian wrote, in an article for Slate, that the martini had “acquired an air of mystery and glamour.” Rudin had written that President Franklin Roosevelt “liked his with a teaspoon of olive brine,” and Zakarian that FDR “added to the standard recipes one teaspoon of olive brine.” Commenting on the similarities, Michael Kinsley, in the March 2015 issue of Vanity Fair, suggested it hinted of plagiarism. I am not sure. But I must agree with his comment in that same article that “Any writer who is not a reckless egomaniac lives in fear of accidentally using some phrase that he or she so admired and that planted itself in his or her brain.”

Plagiarism in Technical Publications

Missteps toward plagiarism may be even more hazardous for technical educators and researchers than for journalists.

An educator who is not involved in research may have it a bit easier than the researcher whose writing is often focusing on a particular new conclusion or unexpected discovery. For the researcher, recognizing and crediting prior research is a key concern. This may account in part for appended references that may sometimes require more pages than the text itself. A math professor, by comparison, in composing a text or other teaching medium on a topic that has been extensively covered previously, needs to avoid accusations of “just writing the same book again.”

Student Plagiarism


A student of my acquaintance was a member of a fraternity that, like many others, kept a file of well-regarded English I theme papers from previous frat members. When he turned in a paper that was virtually identical to one in the file, “Good paper!” his professor told him. “I like it every time I see it,” and then sent him home on a one-year suspension.

With the advent of the Internet, overt plagiarism by students has been facilitated. Yet an academic database like Turnitin can help diminish it. With Turnitin’s claim of more than 45 billion Web pages that include millions of student papers and published articles, professors can submit suspect compositions to get an analysis of unoriginal content and its sources. The mere possibility that a student’s paper may be submitted to Turnitin can lessen the temptation to plagiarize.


Self-plagiarism is defined as the re-use of parts of one’s own published work without acknowledgement or citation. The term is rejected by many as an inappropriate oxymoron. Nevertheless, it can refer to the submission of the same paper to two or more publications, or to the separation of one study into multiple papers, called “salami slicing.” Among the arguments in support of the re-use of one’s own work are the need to restate the previous work as background for a new contribution in the second work, and also that significantly different audiences may benefit from the same paper. (See Samuelson, P., under Resources.)

A Personal Note

In my own writings I try carefully to credit sources. Re “self-plagiarism,” I have no reluctance to repeat a point from my previous writing. I identify verbatim material from credited sources by indenting copy, changing its typeface, or using quotation marks.

I think it optional to credit the original source of a well-known theory or popular anecdote considered to be in the public domain.

Yet I still retain some fear of failing to clearly identify a source, or of my publisher failing to indent or otherwise identify verbatim material from other sources, or inadvertently omitting a key reference or two. Fortunately, in the case of online publications, errors and omissions can be quickly remedied.


Moerdyk, C., Don’t Confuse Aggregation and Plagiarism, (retrieved 5-7-2015)

What is Plagiarism?, (retrieved 4-30-2015)

Foxten, W., Parasite journalism: is aggregation as bad as plagiarism?, (retrieved 5-7-2015)

Kinsley, M., “The Imitation Game,” Vanity Fair, Mar. 2015.

Christiansen, D., Computer-Driven Publishing, IEEE-USA today’s engineer, 10-14-2011

Samuelson, P., “Self-plagiarism or fair use?,” Comm. of the ACM, Aug. 1994.

Atwood, R., “Allow me to rephrase and boost my tally of articles,” Times Higher Education, July 3, 2008. (retrieved 6-12-15)

Don Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. You can write to him at

Donald Christiansen

Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. His Backscatter columns can be found here.

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