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Plagiarism, particularly online plagiarism, is easy to commit inadvertently and is a charge both students and professionals must avoid at all cost.

Few writers or students purposely plagiarize another writer's work. More often it is due to a lack of understanding of basic rules or simply working too fast from too many online sources. And while it seems more prevalent in these times of a free and open Internet, as seen with writers like Doris Kearns Goodwin and the late Stephen Ambrose it can happen to anyone who isn't extremely careful.

While the above examples imply that popularity and book sales may overshadow a brief indiscretion, students caught plagiarizing could be expelled while professional writers could find themselves banned from certain websites. With the stakes so high, all writers need to understand plagiarism and how to avoid it.

Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement

Plagiarism and copyright infringement are often confused, especially in online publishing. For example, a writer might claim that an article appearing without her permission on a website other than the one for which it was written, has been plagiarized . According to the "American Historical Association" website, "... plagiarism is primarily about copying material without proper attribution, while copyright infringement is concerned with borrowing significant portions of a work without permission from the copyright holder, whether or not the holder is cited. " So, if the above article was reproduced giving credit to the author, that is copyright infringement and not plagiarism.

Here are some examples.

• If someone quotes a line or two from a story by Joyce Carol Oates in a review of her latest collection, that is fair use.

• If a writer reproduces the entire short story without Ms. Oates' permission, even if he attributes it, that is copyright infringement.

• If that writer reproduces the story and puts his name at the bottom, that is plagiarism.

Inadvertent Plagiarism

There are any number of reasons students or professional writers can inadvertently commit plagiarism, none of which will stand up as much of an excuse. However, it most often occurs when:

• A writer takes the precaution of rewording another writer's paragraph in an original draft but inadvertently changes the words back to the original in the revision process. This happens especially with certain technical topics where there are only so many ways to explain something.

• In the world of quick online research, the writer has several sites open at one time and writes as he goes along. The writer may think he's combining words of several writers and end up copying just one.

As quoted in a January 22, 2002 article by Timothy Noah on "Doris Kearns Goodwin, Liar," a Harvard freshman composition handbook notes, "...most often the plagiarist...hasn't left enough time to do the reading and thinking that the assignment requires.." This certainly applies to many student writers or professional writers producing several articles a day for content sites, often on topics they know little or nothing about.

One way to lessen the chance of plagiarism is to study up in advance, even if it is only a few days. A better understanding of a topic will make it easier for a writer to put thoughts into her own words. This isn't always possible with content writing where articles are available only for a short time before being snapped up by another writer. In this case writers do best to either stick to topics they know or take the maximum turn around time available. Even 24 hours can allow a writer to research in the morning, cogitate and write later in the afternoon.

Plagiarism Detection Software

Another issue that can arise for writers on content sites is an accusation of plagiarizing their own work. Today, for various reasons, many freelancers will sign up to write for several different sites under different pen names. When a writer submits to a site that uses some free plagiarism checking software, it will pick up if the same words appeared in an article written under another name – even if the articles were written by the same person using an alias.

While it sounds silly, these accusations are difficult to defend against. Also, sites where the biggest concern is volume and speed may not even take the time to hear a plea. It will come down to a simple matter of banning. For this reason, freelancers who write under a pen name must take every precaution not to duplicate wording from article to article.

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