Advocacy Ethics

What’s the Cost of Plagiarism?

Editor’s Note: To commemorate PRSA Ethics Month, PRSAY is running a month-long series of posts on important ethics issues facing the public relations profession. This is the ninth, and final, post in the series. An archive of ethics-related posts can be found here.

Plagiarism has historically been an issue in academic and professional circles.  Students, public relations practitioners, writers and others copy from papers, books, online sources and more. They think they’re not hurting anyone. So what if it’s unethical? No one knows. Right? Wrong!

Every few months, some high-profile official, journalist or celebrity lands in hot water because of plagiarism. Those who are caught seem to always pay dearly for their ethical lapses with careers, credibility and reputations, not to mention their personal ethics, coming under scrutiny.

Earlier this year, Germany’s defense minister resigned under fire for plagiarizing parts of his doctoral dissertation. At first, he denied it. Then, he announced he would stop using the title of doctor until the issue was resolved. Ultimately, a rising star on the road to becoming leader of his country was disgraced and his career destroyed.

A couple of weeks later, The Washington Post apologized because material used in stories it ran about the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had been copied from the Arizona Republic without attribution. As author David Callahan wrote in the Huffington Post, the surprise here is that the reporter involved isn’t someone young and ambitious, taking shortcuts to get ahead, or one who faked credentials to get the job at The Washington Post in the first place. Rather, it’s a seasoned journalist who has won two Pulitzer Prizes.

Both the German politician and the award-winning journalist said they didn’t copy someone else’s work on purpose. Callahan wrote that the reporter blamed her mistake on deadline pressures and bad notes.

It can be easy to confuse plagiarism and copyright infringement. As PRSA’s Professional Standards Advisory PS-16: Plagiarism explains, “Copyright infringement is the expropriation of another’s words, images or other creative works without approval or compensation.” Nuances of copyright, including fair use, are a legal matter. Plagiarism is representing someone else’s words or ideas as your own.

As public relations professionals, we face deadlines and demands from bosses and those we represent every day. The Internet, an endless source of language and ideas, is right at our fingertips. There are also trade publications, obscure books and countless other sources for plagiarism. And most of us aren’t as high-profile as a minister of defense or a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for a major newspaper.

There are discussions in the blogosphere and chat rooms about words not belonging to anyone. One comment offered on a Lifehacker blog post is that plagiarism is not theft because the one who created the words or ideas doesn’t lose anything. The words and ideas stay where the plagiarist found them. But if a coworker gets a promotion, a competitor gets business or a boss gets a generous bonus by presenting your work as his or her own, you may feel differently.

Unfortunately, plagiarism is not uncommon in the workplace. Early in my career, at a new job, someone senior to me asked to see a plan I had drafted for a client, explaining that the boss had told him to take a look at it. The next day, that senior practitioner presented the plan I had developed to the boss as his own. I was new. I didn’t have years of experience. It would have been “he said, she said,” and I would have lost the battle. The plagiarist was never specifically exposed for his misrepresentation of my work, but other coworkers began to complain. Eventually, he was encouraged to leave.

Plagiarism isn’t merely unethical. One way or another, it’s bound to catch up with the perpetrator.

I invite you to take a few minutes to review PRSA’s new guidelines on plagiarism. And weigh in with your thoughts and comments below.

Mary Graybill, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a member of the PRSA Board of Ethic and Professional Standards (BEPS) and a co-author of PRSA’s Professional Standards Advisory PS-16: Plagiarism .

Related: “Thwarting the Rise of Plagiarism” (PRSAY, Oct. 28, 2010)


  • Mary,

    Thanks for the post. I enjoyed it, perhaps because Im a pr guy who values integrity and credibility and firmly believe that plagiarism will take down both with one dull swoop. While I feel for the WashPo reporter who really may have been victimized by the increasingly competitive news business, sometimes mistakes are fatal – on both sides of the editorial line. Depends on the situation. Be careful out there (1). Better to be right than first.


    (1) Source for ‘Be careful out there’ is Hill Street Blues’ Sergeant Phil Esterhaus. 😉

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