Is It Research or Plagiarism?

plagiarismHi! I am a beginning freelance writer. I am writing an article in which I’ve based some of my ideas on texts I used in college. Will I be sued if I don’t ask the authors’ permission? They say that “stealing from one source is plagiarism, but stealing from many sources is research.” Is this true?

At what point does the use of previously published material cross the line from “research” to “copying”? If there were a simple answer to this question, be sure it would have been codified into law long ago. Unfortunately, there isn’t — because the issue can involve many potential variables. There are ethical and acceptable ways to use quotes and published sources in one’s writing — and there are ways that are not so ethical or acceptable. Fortunately, there are some fairly simple criteria to help one establish which is which.

When It’s Research…

To determine whether the use of previously published materials, or quotes from other authors, can justifiably be considered “research,” consider the following questions:

1) What is the audience or market for the work? If you are writing for an academic, scientific, technical, or professional audience (e.g., for a research or professional journal), quoting the work of others is not only acceptable but expected. A paper, article, or report in any of these categories requires evidence of the author’s research — and that evidence is provided in the form of quotes from other published research in the field. You are expected to support your ideas, theories, and statements with quotes from other experts; without those quotes, your paper would probably be rejected.

In this environment, quoting from published sources is the rule rather than the exception. Authors don’t object to being quoted; they expect it. (Indeed, they hope for it; the more one is quoted, the better one’s work becomes known.) Such papers are often peer-reviewed, which means that the reviewer will be looking for this type of research support.

However, if you are writing for a consumer publication (i.e., a general-interest magazine), the situation changes. Consumer publications are very different from research journals, and generally don’t care for material that involves a great deal of quoting from previously published sources. Most consumer publications don’t want material with footnotes (a “must” in academic journals). So while your quotes might be technically acceptable from a research standpoint, they might make your article unsalable in the consumer marketplace.

2) Do you need background research information? Even when you’re writing for consumer publications (print or electronic), you need background material. Moreover, your editor will expect you to draw upon established sources — i.e., you’re expected to look things up rather than make things up. This often means reviewing published sources of information. You’ll also want to make sure those sources are accurate and acceptable (which makes college texts a logical resource).

Suppose, for example, that you are writing an article on animal-assisted therapy (AAT) for a general-interest publication. You’ll probably want to define AAT for your audience, and to do this, it would be logical to draw upon current references. If you happened to study AAT in college, it would be perfectly reasonable to turn to those references for the information you want to include in your text. You are simply using established references to provide important information to your readers. This is basic research; no one considers it “copying.” While you probably won’t footnote your material to the extent that you would if writing for an academic audience, you might choose to provide a list of references for your editor, especially if the publication wants to factcheck your material.

3) How are you referencing the material? In an academic journal, quotes may be used directly, or paraphrased. In either case, they are always supported with footnotes and complete references.

The same is true of a consumer publication, with the exception of the footnotes. In your article on AAT, you might choose to quote a source directly, like this:

Dr. Gordon Chalmers, author of Animal-Assisted Therapy for Dummies, defines AAT as “a system in which [blah, blah, blah].” (Note that in this example, you’ve provided the reference as part of the text.)

Or, you might choose to paraphrase:

AAT has often been described as a system in which… [blah, blah, blah]. (Note that in this case, the reference has been omitted — something that might be appropriate if, in fact, the same information is available from several sources. However, your editor may want to know where the information came from, even if it isn’t referenced directly for the reader.)

This still comes under the category of “research.” However, be aware that editors of consumer publications aren’t usually thrilled by too many quotes from previously published sources. Articles that quote primarily (or entirely) from other published works tend to look too much like college research papers. While a few such quotes won’t hurt, it’s always better to get your direct quotes from live sources. Thus, even if you’re building some of your material from published research, it’s a good idea to go out and interview experts directly for the majority of your quotes — and even, if possible, for the bulk of your article.

4) How much of the article originates with you? This is the ultimate key to whether the material you use for reference constitutes “justifiable research” or a form of copying. If the bulk of your article — your ideas, your focus, your point, your style — is original to you, then you can use however much research you need to make your point. The issue is not whether you are using others’ work as a source of information, but whether your article, as a whole, is original. Are you saying something new? Are you saying something in a new way? Are you bringing anything of value to the material you are quoting? If the answer is “yes,” you will rarely have to worry about being accused of “stealing” another person’s research.

When It’s Stealing…

The laws that apply to plagiarism and copyright infringement are often difficult to interpret. For example, you might technically get away with rewriting someone else’s article in your own words, line for line, and not be legally “guilty” of plagiarism. However, you would certainly be morally guilty of theft. Under certain circumstances, you might be sued for copyright infringement. You would certainly be discredited if the theft were revealed.

Here are some situations in which it is not ethical or acceptable to use previously published materials, even in the name of research:

1) When the ideas are not your own. If you are simply passing off another person’s ideas as your own, even when you are not directly “copying” their work, this is considered theft. Research can inspire ideas, and provide background information, but the central thesis of your article (whatever it may be) should come from you. If you aren’t taking the information anywhere new, but are just recycling other people’s work into your own words, you’re copying.

2) When you “borrow” too much. One component of “fair use” rules involves the question of how much of a published source you’re actually quoting. Again, there are no hard-and-fast rules on the subject; instead, the issue tends to revolve around “substance.” If you are using quotes from a source to support your own thesis, you will usually have no problem. However, if you quote an author to the extent that reading your article is like reading a condensed version of the author’s own work, you have a problem. If your article is more quote than original text, you may also have a problem.

3) When you fail to give appropriate credit. The most common form of unethical quoting is simply inserting information into your article without telling anyone where it came from. If you allow the reader to form the impression that the material is your own original work, and you know it isn’t, this is an unacceptable use — even if you aren’t directly “copying” another author’s work word-for-word. Authors deserve to be credited when you cite their ideas or research.

While these rules all seem fairly obvious, they can still be bent so that a writer can avoid all the “ethical violations” listed above — yet still be morally guilty of “copying” material. For example, I recently reviewed an article that was based entirely on quotes from published materials. All the information presented in the article was drawn from the books of various authors. The article’s author, however, was not “guilty” of any of the sins listed above: She did not claim that the ideas were her own, she did not quote too extensively from any single author, and she did credit each author as the source of the material.

Nevertheless, my feeling was that this article was more “copied” than original. If the quotes were removed, there would have been no article. The author brought nothing original to the piece. She offered no discussion of the techniques referenced in the article. If the article were accepted, she would be paid not for an act of creativity or research, but for the act of simply copying down other people’s words and putting her byline at the top.

Further, I felt certain that the authors in question might be a bit miffed at finding themselves so extensively quoted. When one interviews an author directly, that interview constitutes permission to use the information that is gathered. No such permission is given when a writer pulls the same information out of an author’s previously published work.

In all fairness, I do not believe that this particular author meant to “steal” the work of others. I believe she honestly thought that this fell under the definition of “research” that you mentioned in your letter. This is the type of research we’ve all been taught to do in school, and it’s often difficult to understand why it doesn’t work in the “real world.”

The real key to whether something is “research” or “stealing” is one’s own intention. A person who means to copy the work of others does not do so “accidentally.” Plagiarism does not occur by chance. Copyright infringements are not coincidences. There are self-styled writers who do not hesitate to pass of the ideas, works, and words of others as their own — but these writers know exactly what they are doing. If you’re worried about accidentally stealing, then it’s likely that you have very little to worry about — and the rest of us have no reason to worry about you!

[NOTE: This article should not be considered a substitute for legal advice.]

Moira Allen is the editor of and the author of more than 300 published articles. Her books on writing include Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals (Second Edition), and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests.