How to not plagiarize — and why it matters in your job

Elizabeth Newman
Elizabeth Newman

If there's a teachable moment in the brouhaha of Melania Trump's speech Monday (for those who managed to miss it, chunks appear to have been cribbed from Michelle Obama's 2008 speech), it's in how we should discuss plagiarism with our employees.

I don't blame Melania Trump for the debacle, but I do think her speechwriter should be packing his or her boxes. Writers and journalists should understand plagiarism better than any topic they write about. Traditionally, in most high schools or colleges, plagiarism means an automatic “F” grade for the student. Those who are working journalists or writers caught plagiarizing should be fired, and often are.

But clinical workers, administrators and other professionals in long-term care must understand the topic as well. In an era of sharing on social media, free music, illegally downloaded movies, and constant free written content, it has become easier to think it's not a big deal to beg, steal or borrow. And while we may think this is millennial issue, it's not all that new. In the 1990s, I attended a graduation where the keynote speaker — a politician — tried to pass off life tips as his own. The only thing is they were lifted from a widely circulated chain e-mail.

On a lesser scale, it's not uncommon to hear executives give speeches to employees or write something in a newsletter that they've seen or heard elsewhere, and without citing the original source. There's a temptation to believe no one will notice. The problem with that logic is no one is going to confront the CEO on how his inspirational speech came verbatim from a Tony Robbins book. But you can bet that audience member not only lost respect for the executive, but also gossiped about it with colleagues. It is far better for your employees to think public speaking isn't your strong suit than for them to think you're a liar.

Similarly, let's call out those who steal content from other people's presentations. The No. 1 question McKnight's attendees ask at our webinars is whether the slides are available for download. The majority of the time, there are good intentions related to the listener wanting to review the content, or share with colleagues. But there is a sliver of people who download those slides and pass them off as their own, without crediting the original company or speaker. Whether we catch you at it is besides the point, and let me be clear: You are stealing.

When we stress to employees the need to write originally and cite other sources appropriately, we also can keep an eye out on reasons they might plagiarize. Studies have shown perfectionism, poor time management, procrastination or being in over one's head can lead to copying. Employees might not always understand how to paraphrase or cite others' work correctly, or how content online is not public domain. They should understand the difference between putting a nursing home's policy on visitors in an email to a resident's family — and attributing it that way — and sending along policy, statements or wording that might appear to have come directly from them themselves.

Some administrators may feel their clinical team rarely needs to write. But as long-term care grows, more executives will need to visit hospitals or other health partners with presentations and memos reflecting their quality initiatives. There will be a need for more research, and subsequent journal articles.

How do we encourage original work in both classroom and professional settings? In his book, “Doing Honest Work in College,” Charles Lipson (who, full disclosure, is my cousin, and whose own take can be seen here) cites “The Three Principles of Academic Honesty” this way:

  1. When you say you did the work yourself, you actually did it.

  2. When you rely on others' work, you cite it. When you use their words, you quote them openly and accurately, and you cite them, too.

  3. When you present research materials, you present them fairly and truthfully.

The paragraph above, by the way, is how you credit someone else's ideas. When people ask us if they can run a McKnight's article in their newsletter, we ask them to follow a “10%” rule: They can take the headline, byline and first graph, with a note about where it appeared first and when, and then link to our original story. We want to share our content, but I can't tell you how many times McKnight's writers and editors have seen their words on random websites without our bylines or attribution to McKnight's.

Finally, there's no excuse around “some” of a paper or speech being original. Witness Chris Christie's defense that “93%” of Melania Trump's speech wasn't copied.

Granted, the man hasn't had a good week. But it's not too much to ask to have higher standards than that.

Follow Elizabeth Newman @TigerELN.




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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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