Plagiarism in the workplace: The fine line between copying and collaborating with coworkers

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It’s happened to all of us. You come up with an idea that’s so brilliant, if not genuinely groundbreaking, that you can’t help but tell your work bestie. And it’s entirely possible that they then tell their bestie and so on and so on like an ’80s Faberge Organics shampoo commercial. Fast forward a few weeks, and for some reason instead of getting the credit you deserve, your former work wife is collecting the kudos. Before getting indignant, stop to think. Have you been guilty of the same thing?

Have you ever taken an idea — or even a germ of someone else’s idea — and been so inspired that you took it and ran with it and made it your own? Well, you might be skating on the edges of plagiarism.

Though it seems to be mostly geared to students, plagiarism.org has a helpful article that explains exactly what plagiarism is. According to their website, some pronounced signs of plagiarism include:

  • Turning in someone else’s work as your own
  • Copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit
  • Failing to put a quotation in quotation marks
  • Giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation
  • Changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit
  • Copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not (see our section on “fair use” rules)

A simple fix is always to give credit where credit is due. It doesn’t diminish your hard work to acknowledge that of someone else. If your work is online, try to link back to the source or at least the original place you spotted these ideas. And if you’re wondering if it’s okay to use someone else’s idea, ask them first – they might say yes. And if you’re a professional writer, or create content regularly, don’t take the easy way out and simply lift quotes from a previously published article and pass them off as your own source or interview. Despite the fact that these quotes or comments appear publicly, they were shared in a very specific context. It’s not okay to simply drop them into your article as well. Find your own sources or even contact those sources for a fresh quote.

Meanwhile, in some cases, there’s a not only a precedent of lifting the material of others, but it’s accepted as a best practice. Attorney Diane Rosen, the founder of Compass Consultants, explained some times when copying could be a good thing. “In the law firm world, there is a whole function around ‘knowledge management’ the entire purpose of which is to avoid having to reinvent the wheel.”

As Rosen explains it, “Basically, firms look to create a library of documents (forms, agreements, research memos) so that lawyers can draw upon the work of others in the firm to streamline the creation of work product. Lawyers can search archives to find documents that address specific matters to save time and energy on creating something new.”

Unlike many creative industries, “a lawyer almost always works from a template rather than drafting from scratch,” Rosen explains. She says this is true for transactional practice (using leases, indentures, mortgages, offering plans) and litigation: “As documents become more sophisticated, they build on prior versions to address new issues (e.g., incorporating language from a new law or case into the standard form).”

When it’s intentional sharing or a specific library of documents created to be used by a specific group, there’s no fear of plagiarism, “but rather best practice to identify high-level drafting and comprehensive language to address evolving situations. When a lawyer sees a good document from the ‘other side’ he/she usually holds onto it to recycle or to incorporate into ones’ own templates.”

If you want to boil it down to good copying vs. the really bad kind, Rosen explains, “Where the idea of plagiarism gets complicated is less around a classic definition of copying (as in plagiarizing in an academic context, which is easy to penalize) but more in the nature of taking someone’s idea and touting it as one’s own.

“Organizationally, this goes back to what gets rewarding. If the culture is to compete, then collaborating and sharing ideas is not a good thing. Alternatively, in a culture where teamwork matters, generating and building on each other’s work is not plagiarism.”