Sunday, September 6, 2009

Plagiarism and Paraphrasing

I recently agreed to a contract which defined plagiarism as "paraphrasing" a source. Now, before I address this, I want to tell you that whenever you sign a contract, you are legally allowed to cross-out anything with which you do not agree before you sign it. If you do this, the other party(s) is within their legal rights to deny the contract; they can send it back to you or otherwise reject it. However, if they accept the contract with your changes, then your changes are now legally part of the contract - well, if you crossed anything out, then it's more fitting to say your changes are not part of the agreement, but you understand what I'm saying. I could not exercise this option in this case because the contract was electronic, however I didn't mind agreeing to it because, due to the nature of the business in question, paraphrasing could be considered "plagiarism" - but, again, this is specific to this agreement and the nature of the business.

Paraphrasing is not plagiarism - at least not technically. Paraphrasing an entire article is, though. That is to say, were I to "rewrite" Grapes of Wrath, then sure, that's plagiarism. However, some agencies and others with a vested interest (read: AP and journalists) have started forwarding the idea that anyone who reports on an article is actually plagiarizing it. That's just not true. And I'm not saying this just because I am guilty of doing this, according to their definition.

When it comes to "rewriting" or "paraphrasing" articles or accounts - such as eyewitness reports - many bloggers are guilty of plagiarism. I, on the other hand, always do at least a small amount of research whenever I report anything. This is for no other reason than to better my coverage and make sure readers don't think I simply regurgitated something I'd read.

However, there certainly are times when I simply "rewrite" an article I've read. The reason is simple: I want to record and share the idea, but I don't want to just send a link to my friends, family, and readers. There are at least 100,000 reasons for this, but the most important one is that nobody's going to follow that link! If your contacts are anything like mine, they have all sorts of reasons they don't follow the link, but the point is that they don't.

Further, were I to simply link to every news piece I cover, most of my blogs would be little more than a collection of links. That's dry, uninteresting, and not really a blog at all. Some posts/articles are very direct and these particular articles are also generally short; direct and to the point stories leave little room for anything other than "rewriting." Articles based on eyewitness accounts, or are centered on specific facts and figures,, also leave little room for change or addition. In cases such as these, I often write whatever I want to say regarding the issue, then include quotes from the article which prompted me to write about it.

In general, we all know the difference between "rewriting" something and plagiarism; we learned that much back in elementary school! If the teacher realized you simply regurgitated the encyclopedia's entry on the topic, you got an F. Enterprising students like myself quickly learned to use at least two sources whenever we wrote a paper. In general though, we were still largely paraphrasing what we'd read.

The inclusion of a restriction which defines plagiarism as "rewriting" is something which should concern us all; allowing organizations like the Associated Press to redefine terms is something we should all protest. The AP has a vested interest in this issue and cannot be trusted to protect anyone's rights but their own. As a blogger and professional writer, I know what plagiarism is and I'm not about to let an agency like the AP tell me what it means!

© C Harris Lynn, 2009

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