A discussion on plagiarism: maintaining the integrity of your agency

In light of the recent ‘lack of sourcing’ scandal that took place within the prestigious offices of The Daily News in New York, a discussion on plagiarism could not occur at a more appropriate time. Lambasted for copying a number of sections from an article that was published by The Daily Beast only a few days before, Shaun King (Senior Justice Writer for The Daily News) quickly became a social pariah by having his integrity and entire professional existence questioned. However, upon investigation, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper in question found that the person responsible for the final editing process of the article had removed King’s attributions from the original document – an unforgivable and irresponsible action that brought a popular and reliable newspaper into disrepute.

Although we may not be producing newspapers, the existence of digital marketing organisations is based on the same premise – to conduct research that provides an audience with interesting, relatable and unique content. However, in an industry where convergence and curation reigns supreme, how do we go about discussing plagiarism and the devastating effect that it could have on our agencies and industry? If we consider the permeability of social media and how attribution, sourcing and crediting is lost among the hundreds upon thousands of shares and reposts, we will notice the thin line upon which we balance when it comes to digital content marketing.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘plagiarism’ can be defined as the copying of another author’s work and presenting it as your own, without their consent, and may be intentional, or unintentional. In many cases, plagiarism is as obvious as the sky is blue, and oftentimes it is unintentional – there are thousands (if not millions) of online articles and manuscripts that contain the same or similar use and order of words. Not only do these combinations occur naturally and according to a writer’s knowledge of the English language, but they are also unavoidable.

However, it is not unintentional plagiarism to which we need to turn our focus. Plagiarism, a fault of epic proportion, has the power to bring an agency to its knees – it is the proverbial black mark on an otherwise spotless record. While plagiarism can be managed in-house, it becomes life-threatening if it goes unnoticed before publication which leads us to the question of how we go about protecting the integrity of our agencies.

It is important to keep in mind the fact that writers and strategists are able to take an existing concept and add to it their own unique spin, provided that they credit the person from whom the work originates. The issues lie in content that is curated without accreditation, and copy that is stolen to serve the purpose of representing a specific brand. Not only can these indiscretions lead to the public shame of a particular brand and its product offering, but it can also lead to detrimental legal consequences for the agency in question. The trick to restricting plagiarism does not lie in software or in mechanical-like copy editors, but rather in the ethics of an agency. If your agency lacks ethics that act as guidelines to your employees, the chances are high that they will disregard the most simple of rules, plagiarism included.

While many agencies may include anti-plagiarism declarations and rules into their policy and procedure documentation, it is of the utmost importance that employees are given the rundown of what is acceptable and what is not. If this means that senior staff members are given the responsibility of tutoring new employees on how to go about sourcing their facts and research, then it might just be the necessary step that agencies need to take to avoid the risk of having their integrity questioned.

In an effort to identify plagiarism, it is important to make use of software that can scan through the relevant documents and provide a percentage that indicates the unique quality of the content – the rule of thumb is that if the content receives a score of 85% and above, it is accepted as unique. However, it can become a tedious task of running every item of content through a detector. Instead, search for clues within the copy itself – if the fluidity of the writing is broken by a random concept, if the tone or style of the content is irregular or unusual, or if the tone of writing is of a higher standard than usual, you may want to double-check the content for plagiarism.

The same rigmarole can be applied to visual content – unless you have produced the content in your own capacity, it is imperative that you or your writers attribute the relevant sources, regardless of how many times an item has been shared or reposted without the relevant accreditation. When it comes to plagiarism, it is important to ensure (first and foremost) a water-tight ethics code that includes some sort of penalty for the indiscretion, followed by a contingency plan if something were to slip through the cracks of your proofreading process. While you should make it clear that there should never be anything that slips through the cracks, you can never be too prepared for writers who think themselves too smart for the rules of creating content.

While individual agencies are able to exercise control within the microcosm in which their employees exist, it is becoming more and more imperative that the macrocosm of the digital marketing industry implore organisations to act as watchdogs, from copy to visual content. Due to the porousness and nature of the industry – through curation and convergence – and without a system of regulators, the industry is at continuous risk of producing content that is not unique, but rather stolen. After all, well-strategized, thoughtful and unique content is ultimately the type of content that yields results.



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