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What is Plagiarism and How Can You Avoid It?

Take care to protect your reputation and relationships.

By Jesse Scinto, MS, DTM


Lee was as surprised as I was when I caught him cheating on his speech.

It happened in my graduate communication course. Lee spoke several lines from a Wikipedia entry as though they were his own. I discovered it by chance, when I looked up his topic and listened to the recording.

Lee had been a good student—eager to learn, quick to volunteer, always pleasant. When I confronted him, he insisted it was all a mistake. He knew the university’s strict rule against plagiarism. He tried hard to avoid crossing the line. He apologized. But it became clear that Lee’s understanding of plagiarism was murky at best. He had never received training. We didn’t offer it. For him, the line between originality and plagiarism was so fine that he couldn’t find it. He’s not alone.

Many well-known writers, artists and speakers have fallen into the trap—from pop singer Robin Thicke (who was found guilty of copying another songwriter’s work) to Barack Obama (who was accused of using words similar to those in a speech delivered by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick). And while most Toast­masters will never face the same scrutiny as a celebrity or politician, unfairly borrowing other people’s work—intentionally or not—can hurt our credibility and slow our progress toward ­becoming better speakers. Some basic safeguards will help us avoid embarrassment. We start by clarifying our understanding.


What is Plagiarism?

The simplest definition of plagiarism is using someone else’s words or ideas without proper attribution. That’s what Lee did in speaking the lines from Wikipedia. It’s pretty easy to prove, thanks to the internet.

Beyond the simple definition is a vast gray area where degrees of originality and intent factor in. Some experts argue for a plagiarism spectrum that assigns blame according to severity. Turnitin, the online originality checker, identifies 10 different types of plagiarism. Other experts highlight cultural differences in defining plagiarism and question the ownership of words. They see intellectual property as a Western ideal tied to individualism and capitalism.

Instead of getting caught up in definitions, I think it’s important to remind ourselves why we’re in Toastmasters. Isn’t it to find our own voice and develop our own communication skills? When we borrow other people’s words too heavily, we deprive ourselves of the practice we need to improve. We also undermine our relationship with the audience. Plagiarism is a problem because it leads people to believe we’re something we’re not: more pithy, more poetic, more insightful. When they find out, they feel duped. We lose their trust and our ability to persuade them.

To avoid plagiarism, we must know how and when to give credit. It requires us to make judgments about the distinctiveness of the material we borrow. For instance, no one would accuse us of plagiarism for saying, “We must stand firm,” even though it’s been said before. That’s because it’s not very original. But a unique combination of words or an expression that’s highly identified with a particular person—like “brevity is the soul of wit”—calls for attribution.

When in doubt, we can ask ourselves a few common-sense questions:

  • Am I borrowing from a copyrighted work or recorded speech?
  • Is someone else widely known for phrasing things this way?
  • Would my listeners mistakenly believe I’m the author if I don’t say otherwise?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then we must find a way to cite our sources.


Where Credit Is Due

Giving credit in a speech is tricky, because we don’t have quotation marks or footnotes to work with. Detailed citations can impede the flow of the speech and break the listeners’ spell. But audiences generally don’t expect a full technical citation. It’s often enough to simply indicate we’re not the author.

As Robert Lehrman notes in his excellent Political Speechwriter’s Companion, “If you have consciously borrowed material, find an economical way of acknowledging that you have a source.” This could be done with a short preface, like:

  • As the saying goes … 
  • Someone once said … 
  • I’m not the first to say … 
  • To quote Shakespeare …

Occasionally, you may want to emphasize a source to boost your credibility. You can do this by providing more detail:

  • According to a 2016 report by the World Health Organization … 
  • In her July 2014 speech before parliament, Angela Merkel said …

These phrases let listeners know you’re not claiming credit for the ideas. They can ask for your sources if interested. You should be prepared to produce them if necessary.


Avoiding Unintentional Plagiarism

What happens if your plagiarism is unintentional? Lee claimed he was so nervous he forgot to cite his sources. As Toastmasters, we can perhaps relate, recalling what it was like to give our Ice Breaker. Does he get a pass? Unfortunately, the perception of plagiarism can be just as damaging as the real thing. Your audience will be the ultimate judge. But there are some things you can do to avoid unintentional plagiarism.

1 Speak from personal experience. It’s the most original content you can offer and the easiest way to avoid plagiarism. Audiences love a good story. They’re eager to learn how you solved problems, faced adversity or found humor in a situation. A relevant, well-told personal story can be as gripping as a Hollywood movie.

2 Be a curator. In museums, curators seek out the most original, thought-provoking works to display. They carefully decide where each piece goes and what to say about it, documenting provenance. By bringing pieces together in a single exhibit, curators save patrons time and effort. Be the curator of your speech. Give credit where credit is due, knowing the audience will find value in your effort.

3 Keep good notes. In recent years, well-known historians have gotten into trouble for inserting long, unattributed passages into their books. Some blame their own poor note-taking, saying they forgot to write down the source. Revisiting their notes, they thought the passages were their own!

4 Check your facts. If you plan to use a well-known saying or quote, don’t just go from memory. Check it on the internet and make sure you’ve quoted correctly and know who to credit. Similarly, if you’ve heard someone else use a particularly witty phrase—or think you’ve invented one of your own—check it. Having worked in advertising, this was standard practice whenever we thought we had something original. Often enough we found out otherwise!

5 Verify originality. If you’re giving a high-profile speech or one that will live on the internet, consider using an online originality checker such as Grammarly, Turnitin or Dupli­checker. Many political speechwriters are on record as using these services to vet major speeches.

6 Include citations on your slides. For slide presentations, the best practice is to place citations at the bottom of each slide, whenever possible. That way, if the deck gets split up, the citations remain with their related content. Alternatively, you can include an end slide with a bibliography.


Lee’s Lament

Even if Lee had remembered to cite his source, he still had borrowed too much—nearly 20 percent of the speech. He paid a price in terms of his grade and his reputation. He also failed to find his voice on this assignment, which is the bigger regret. As Toastmasters, we owe it to ourselves and each other to be honest in our borrowings. It’s a true sign of leadership.

Note: Lee is a composite character.