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.