Monday, July 28, 2014

When is an Idea Original? Thoughts about Plagiarism

There's been a rash of plagiarism accusations, acknowledgements, and articles in local newspapers.

These articles have me wondering about the topic.

With such tremendous content share going on via Twitter, blogs, articles, books, videos, and more, how many ideas are truly original? I suppose you could even think about this mathematically by dividing the numbers of word combinations available by the numbers of people who write and the frequency with which they write or something similar to that--there's probably a plagiarism quotient out there.

Often you'll see a topic infiltrate Twitter with strength--an idea takes hold and hundreds of people enrich, revise, modify, and restate the idea. By the end of the surge, you wonder about the specificity of the original idea, and the idea as it stands now repeated hundreds of times.

One idea in question recently was the idea related to the fact that Internet exchanges on Twitter had led to revolution in some places. The idea as stated resembled a speech by a government official closely yet the idea itself is not original since its been restated thousands of times (or more) in multiple contexts in the past couple of years.

So while I agree it's not right to copy someone's ideas and text into your own blog, speech, paper, or report, I am also questioning how we truly can expect that people won't use similar ideas and language today, an age of extensive share.

What is your rule of thumb when it comes to plagiarizing?

For myself, I rarely, if ever, look at another article before publishing my ideas--they come from me. Yet, sometimes I'll read a similar idea after I've published, and I'll think, "Did that come from me, or were we on the same train of thought?" I have no real way of knowing.

Yet, if there are lines and lines copied, such as a copy of my blog that's published in another country word-for-word without my name, then we know there's no question about it, that's plagiarism.

In the end, it's good ideas that matter--ideas that make a difference and foster positive growth and change in our world.

And as for plagiarism, I'll continue to teach my students to read, think, synthesize, and write in their own words, not someone else's. And for the 100's of repeated ideas out there, how do you handle that situation?

After writing this I read Jennifer Graham's column about the same topic, and she meets the issue with far more eloquence. I recommend.