Telling The Difference Between Plagiarism and Similarity

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Understanding plagiarism means understanding its definition, its implications and its logic. Plagiarism is usually an ethical issue but can also turn into a legal one depending on the situation. While students may not be subject to legal measures for plagiarising content, though they certainly will be held responsible, this is not so for publishers.

Distinguishing between plagiarism, copyright infringement and similarity is important when checking papers — Lalena Jaramillo / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND

Publishers of periodicals in the academic field or otherwise are sometimes faced with the question as to whether the content of a material falls within the scope of plagiarism. In such instances it may be useful to be able to distinguish between plagiarism, similarity and copyright infringement.

The difference between plagiarism and similarity
When the content of any given material, be it an article, a review or a paper, is checked, similarities to other such materials may appear. This does not, however, automatically mean that the respective content has been plagiarized. At this point this simply means that similar content to other such materials has been found but it does not imply dishonest or illegal practices.

Giving credit where it is due — CCACnorthLib / Flickr / CC BY

Especially in academic papers, a high percentage of instances of similarity can easily be explained through comparison and an analysis of the content and its context. Quoting the title of another paper will be detected as a similarity. So will names, book titles or bibliographies, references and quotes, common phrases and constructs, etc. Though similar, they do not qualify as plagiarism because plagiarism implies using someone else’s work or ideas as if they were one’s own.

Take, for example, a review of an academic paper. Needless to say, such a review will feature many quotes from the original paper. Apart from that, it will also include a lot of other similarities due to paraphrasing, making use of the same concepts and so forth. Therefore, if credit is given where it is due, this will not be considered plagiarism.

What about copyright infringement?
There is another issue here which has not yet been touched upon. What about copyright infringement? Can someone be accused of copyright infringement but not of plagiarism? The answer is yes. Copyright infringement concerns the unfair or unregulated use of someone’s property and the violation of their rights over it. Plagiarism, on the other hand, is about claiming (directly or indirectly) ownership over something which does not rightfully belong to one.

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Copyright infringement in academic settings should not be overlooked. opensourceway / Flickr / CC BY-SA

In his blog, attorney Mark Fowler has written an article titled ‘The Unoriginal Sin: Differences Between Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement‘ which examines this matter and the legal implications behind it in detail. The most important point to take away is that copyright infringement may occur even when an author has given all credit where it is due. For example, quoting extensively from someone’s work may be considered an infringement even if one has been very diligent and consistent in providing all the proper references.

How to evade both plagiarism and copyright infringement
In a nutshell, plagiarism is evaded by being consistent in always acknowledging and giving credit to one’s sources. This, of course, applies equally to quoting, paraphrasing or simply expressing someone else’s ideas and words in one’s own words.

Following the proper process of editing prior to publishing — Nahh / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND

The difference between similarity and copyright infringement, on the other hand, is harder to spot as similarity inevitably occurs in any text. It is the amount and the way it is used that can turn it into a copyright infringement. Therefore, when checking papers for a periodical, publishers and editors need to assess the percentage of similarity and whether it: a) may constitute a copyright infringement (if too much has been used) and b) whether the amount of similarity does not lower the quality of a paper.

Extensive quoting is not advisable, whether it be in periodicals or otherwise, as it seriously calls into question the originality of the author’s point of view and the necessity of publishing such a paper at all. Each case of similarities must be studied carefully so as to reveal whether it is a form of acceptable practice, intentional or unintentional plagiarism or copyright infringement.

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