The Ten Commandments of Writing:

10. Thou Shalt Not Covet Another Writer’s Ideas

“assorted-title book in bookcase” by Dakota Corbin on Unsplash

In the Bible’s Old Testament, God speaks directly to Moses and gives him the Ten Commandments. Fortunately, a similar code exists for writers. The tenth commandment of writing follows.

10. Thou Shalt Not Covet Another Writer’s Ideas.

I can remember vividly the first time I became aware of the word “plagiarism.” I was in junior high at the time, and I was reading an article in the sports’ pages about a local athlete who had earned a scholarship to play basketball at a major university. Unfortunately for this particular athlete, the article stated that he would be unable to play during the upcoming semester not because he was injured physically but because he had injured his academic reputation and had been found guilty of plagiarism. I was stunned, and I knew at that precise moment that plagiarism must be a serious offense.

“So what is plagiarism?” I said to my English instructor when I went to school the next day.

“Plagiarism is a lot like stealing,” she said, “but instead of stealing something solid like a wallet or a purse, you are stealing someone’s ideas. Essentially, when you plagiarize, you are pretending that those ideas are your own, and you are trying to get credit for them” (The Newbury House Dictionary). Then, like any good teacher, she took that opportunity to explain plagiarism in more detail to the entire class later that afternoon. Over 50 years later, obviously, that lesson still stays with me.

So does Hudson Valley Community College have a rule on plagiarism? Yes. According to the HVCC Plagiarism Policy, “A student is guilty of plagiarism any time s/he attempts to obtain academic credit by presenting someone else’s ideas as her/his own without appropriately documenting the original source.”

Most colleges today have a similar policy regarding plagiarism, but, interestingly enough, plagiarism hasn’t always been considered such a serious offense. In the long ago past, for example, students and writers were actually encouraged to take the wisdom of their elders and predecessors, and no one was expected to cite their sources. According to Brian Hansen, author of “Combatting Plagiarism” (from The CQ Researcher), the ancient Greeks called this “mimesis,” or imitation, and the absence of citations “was grounded in the belief that knowledge of the human condition should be shared by everyone, not owned or hoarded. The notion of individual ownership was much less important than it is today” (782).

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Photo by Mr Cup / Fabien Barral on Unsplash

So when did ownership of ideas become so much more important? Hansen goes on to say that two factors contributed to the change in thinking; the invention of the printing press and the introduction of copyright laws “advanced the notion that individual authorship was good and that mimesis was bad” (784). Thomas Mallon agrees with this view. In his book entitled Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism, Mallon writes, “plagiarism didn’t become a truly sore point with writers until they thought of writing as their trade” (3–4). Thus, as a student, you should be aware that plagiarism is not only a college issue that professors worry about but also a real world issue that involves professional writers and concerns everyone.

Unfortunately, since the invention of the printing press in 1440 spurred the ownership of creativity, another recent invention has threatened to undermine the corresponding individual ownership of ideas. Hansen writes that “The advent of the Internet makes committing plagiarism easier than ever” (783). This is especially true for a generation of students who grew up with computers and for a while became accustomed to the free file sharing of music. In other words, some students assume that if it’s on the Internet, it’s free for the taking, and these students may simply “copy” text from the Internet and “paste” it into their term papers. That could be a problem.

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“person using MacBook Pro” by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

The problem isn’t necessarily the using of the information. After all, the Internet always has the most current information, and teachers definitely want you to have up-to-date information in your research. The problem occurs when you fail to cite the source of your information. Just as composers and musicians demanded to be compensated when their music was shared on the Internet without their permission, writers and researchers demand to be acknowledged and recognized for their work, and teachers expect their students to cite their sources.

So as you begin working on your term papers for this semester, make sure you take meticulous notes and document your sources properly. Then, you will, most likely, avoid the consequence of damaging your own academic reputation by being accused of plagiarism.

Written by

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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