Advocacy Ethics Thought Leadership

Thwarting the Rise of Plagiarism

It seems that almost anything is an acceptable practice on the Internet. Freedom of speech. What used to be illegal, immoral or unethical is now seemingly acceptable. Even Stephen Ambrose might feel at home. Right?

Wrong! While the First Amendment may allow for the unabashed type of conduct that exists in some Internet circles (e.g. hurtful, anonymous comments), the practice of falsely representing another person’s ideas as your own — plagiarism — is still unethical, and in some cases, illegal.

I’m not sure where people develop the idea that it’s OK to cut and paste copy, photos and other online content without attribution. Unfortunately, the trend appears to be growing, and sadly, those who plagiarize often don’t even think they’re doing anything wrong.

Just to find out how bad plagiarism has become and how others assess the current practices, I Googled “Is internet plagiarism ok?”. What I found shocked me.

There were more stories and content than I had time to review. What I did conclude is that, Yes, Internet “cutting and pasting” is considered by many as a legitimate literary tool. And that kind of thinking is gaining mainstream acceptance.

In a current look at what’s happening and why, New York Times education reporter Trip Gabriel uncovered some interesting trends in his Aug. 1, 2010, article “Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age.” Gabriel notes, “It is a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property, copyright and originality are under assault in the unbridled exchange of online information.”

Gabriel goes on to say, “In surveys from 2006 to 2010 by Donald L. McCabe, a co-founder of the Center for Academic Integrity and a business professor at Rutgers University, about 40 percent of 14,000 undergraduates admitted to copying a few sentences in written assignments.”

Even more significant, Gabriel notes, “…the number who believed that copying from the Web constitutes ‘serious cheating’ is declining — to 29 percent on average in recent surveys from 34 percent earlier in the decade.”

All of this leads me to believe that part of the problem is that transference of ethical understanding and values to emerging generations is not occurring as it did in the past. Not sure why that is, but I think it’s important to openly discuss societal values and the essence of right and wrong with people of all ages — and, so does the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards.

Take a few moments to read Professional Standards Advisory (PSA) #16 — PLAGIARISM, by Mary Graybill, APR, Fellow PRSA. It will help frame the Professional Values and Code Provisions that are in play.

As disturbing as this trend is, I do see a ray of hope for the online generation.

At the PRSA International Conference, “Powering PRogress,” held Oct. 16-19, in Washington, D.C., I was part of the PRSA College of Fellows Masters Class on Ethics. We invited folks on Twitter to join our 70-plus member live audience. Here’s what some had to say (full transcript):

@christakeizer:  Defense for unethical PR has been “they are doing it, we can do it too.”

@pnherdz: Just because other people are doing it, doesn’t mean it’s right.

@prsa: We have seen a number of PR agencies ignore ethics and not provide ethics education to new employees.

@christakeizer: We need to educate at both a senior and lower level.

@EricSchwartzman: Ethics are like vegetables & children. They’re critical 2 healthy, productive life but they’re tough to get kids to eat.

Just goes to show you, there is hope!

Bob Frause, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a member of the PRSA Board of Directors and CEO of  Frause , a Seattle-based public relations agency.

About the author

Bob Frause, APR, Fellow PRSA


  • One important place to start cracking down on internet plagiarism is in school. There are online programs and services that help teachers check for plagiarism. One of my public relations professors, Professor Walton, always had us turn our papers in digitally through one of these services. I believe it was The service then checked our papers to find direct quotes or pieces of information from online sources. This checked for copied and pasted information. For me, this re-enforced the teaching from elementary school and high school of how to analyze data, draw conclusions and put information into our own words. It re-enforced the illegality of plagiarism. I do not know if all of these services cost money, but it seems like a good investment for a high school or even elementary school if it will teach integrity.

  • Kevin thanks for the insights. Got me thinking, maybe communication directors or agency supervisors should run their employee’s copy through services like this. If the copy was judged pure they would receive a stamp of approval that could become part of a news release signature or a publishing credential for any other content. Or maybe we should just consider licensing PR professionals. Just saying.

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