Sunday, April 01, 2018

Give credit when words are borrowed

I regularly receive emails alerting me to news stories about incidents of plagiarism. These alerts aren't randomly sent to me. I set myself up to receive them. After reading the articles, I sometimes send out a tweet with a link to the story accompanied by "#plagiarism."

It's not with any sense of Schadenfreude that I continue to receive and continue to disseminate these pieces of plagiarism news. I write and teach writing for a living, so I am constantly looking for examples of people getting themselves caught up in plagiarism woes partly as a source of grist to share with my students.

Some instances of plagiarism are more egregious than others. Recently, the superintendent of schools for Ridgefield, Conn., ended up resigning after being caught "borrowing" words from the West Hartford, Conn., superintendent of schools in a letter that went out to parents about the shootings at Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

It was a student, Paul Kim, at Ridgefield High School who discovered the plagiarism. Initially, it was reported that Kim was blocked from presenting information on the incident to the school board in Ridgefield. Only after the "Ridgefield Press" took up the issue did the board act.

In a video interview on The Hartford Courant's website, Kim observes correctly that members of the Ridgefield community should expect a higher level of "professionalism" than the act of plagiarism represents.

While any letter might have reflected similar concerns about school safety, lifting the words directly from someone else's work is not only unprofessional, it sends a horrible message to students that such word theft is OK.

The temptation though for the superintendent might be clear. When there's so much work to be done and one more letter to be sent to parents, seeking ways to leverage time by cutting and pasting from other sources might be attractive. The message still gets out to parents and the superintendent doesn't need to reinvent the wheel.

Whether it's a message about school safety, a note about snow days, or any written expression at all, using someone else's words without attributing them to the original source is wrong. It's plagiarism inside or outside of an academic setting.

It doesn't matter that no one loses any money when a sentence here and there are stolen and presented as original work. It doesn't matter if the sentiments written by a professional colleague reflect your own and you find that you couldn't have said or written it any better. In such cases as the latter, if those other words are so well-wrought, the right thing is to give the writer of them credit for having done so.

Given the emphasis on integrity in the classroom and among teachers and students, superintendents of schools should know better than to plagiarize. But so should lawyers, doctors, plumbers, therapists, architects, curators, baristas, bricklayers, funeral directors, and anyone else who commits writing.

Give credit when you borrow someone else's words. Call people out who take credit for words that are not their own. Use your words, but make sure they are indeed your own. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


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