THE BLOG
03/31/2016 12:16 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2017

How to Avoid Unintentional Plagiarism

DragonImages via Getty Images

As a freelance writer, I use the web constantly to find new information, research topics I don't know and find people to interview. However, as wonderful as it is to be able to instantly have the world of information so easy to access, it has also made unintended plagiarism unintended easy. There are just too many variables as we speed through creating a written document that can sneak in when rushing to meet deadline.

What is protected?

So, while many consider text online fair game, in fact it isn't so.

The Library of Congress (LOC), defines plagiarism almost everything online is protected by our copyright laws.

The specific definition by LOC is, "The act of stealing and passing off the ideas, words, or other intellectual property produced by another as one's own. For example, using someone else's words in a research paper without citing the source, is an act of plagiarism," including:
 Links
 Original text
 Graphics
 Audio
 Video
 html, vrml, other unique markup language sequences
 List of Web sites compiled by an individual or organization
 And all other unique elements that make up the original nature of the material.

So, how to avoid unintentional plagiarism

Before "signing off" of the article, paste it into one of the many "plagiarism checkers" available online. A few are:
Copyscape
Grammarly
Plagiarisma
Searchengine report
PlagScan
Just to name a few.

These applications have saved many writers the unpleasant surprise that something they thought was original, isn't. It can also verify that a quote that may have been attributed to one source may actually have been lifted by someone else.

It's an ever changing landscape of written material with unknown sources. The careful writer will use every tool available to protect their work from troublesome discovery.

Know the source

Another way to protect work from unintentional plagiarism is to verify the sources: Who is really behind that website?

Here are some tools to help evaluate and validate a website:
1. Authority-Who wrote it? Are they an authority with credentials or just opinion?
2. Currency: Who is paying for this page? When was the page last update? Older than six months?
3. Are they selling something behind the information? What are they asking of you?
4. What is the scope of the site? Does it offer more than one opinion or a larger scope of comparison?

Use this simple checklist to review any website:

Credibility, Accuracy, Reasonableness, Support (CARS)

• Credibility: How does this source know this information? Why should I believe this source over another?
• Accuracy: The information may be only partial and not give the full story.
• Reasonableness: Examine the information for fairness, objectivity, moderateness and consistency.
• Support: What is the source and corroboration of the information? Much information comes from other sources. Citing sources strengthens the credibility.

Spoofing

Yet, still another step before grabbing information from a site is a quick review - or decoding--to see if it is genuine or a "spoofed." Spoofing is copying the site as a hoax and designed to gather information to use in tracking information or money. It is sometimes called a "shadow copy" of the website and grab the victim's traffic and user's information.

Things to look for on a website:
A. Authority-Who wrote it? Are they an authority with credentials or just opinion?
B. Currency: Who is paying for this page? When was the page last update? Older than six months?
C. Are they selling something behind the information? What are they asking of you?
D. What is the scope of the site? Does it offer more than one opinion or a larger scope of comparison?

Once the site has been validate, follow these steps to legally and safely use information found online:
1) Read the source material carefully
2) Copy and paste it into a word processing document.
3) Look for potential quotes and paraphrases in the source.
4) Highlight the passages that may be quoted for the document.
5) Paste all of the potential quotes from the source into a new document.
6) Copy all the passages that may paraphrased into a new document.
7) Insert the quotes and paraphrases at appropriate places for the essay.
8) Copy the URL into the appropriate "Note" format.
9) If the site is old, go to Wayback Machine at archive.com or Google's Advance Search.

While this list seems long at first, using it as a standard goes quickly and greatly reduce the possibility of unintentional plagiarism.

Geri Spieler is a Silicon Valley Freelance Writer www.gerispieler.com