Today has been declared Anti-Plagiarism Day by Jane Smith at her blog How Publishing Really Works. She has asked writers to discuss plagiarism and its effects in their blogs, on Facebook, and other networking sites to get the conversation going about a growing problem.
I have had a few run-ins with plagiarism. The first happened a few years ago when I was still owning our local newspaper. I wrote an article about the renovations done at a local car dealership in our village. A few weeks passed and I opened one of our national newspapers and there was my article, word for word, with another person's name on it. I was furious. I contacted the editor who told me the person was a freelancer and he would follow-up. The freelancer sent me an email apologising saying that the car dealership gave him the article and he thought it was theirs to give. He begged me to forgive him as he was a foreigner and didn't want to get in problems in Botswana. I asked him why he put his name on it when he knew he didn't write it? Did he get paid for submitting that article? He never emailed me again. Even as I write this, and that was more than seven years ago, this freelancer's articles can be seen in that very same national paper. I would have thought something like that would have been enough to blacklist him, but apparently not in Botswana.
Some year's later, when I just started out as a writer, I was asked to write a book for junior secondary children on Uganda. It was a work for hire with a very rigid framework of what should be covered since it was part of a series. I began doing research and wrote ample notes primarily from the internet since most books I found here were very out of date. I used my notes to write the book, not the sources, and I noted all sources for the publisher. It was the first time I was asked to do such a big writing job and it was for an international publisher, so I wanted to do a good job. I finished the book before schedule and sent it off.
To my shock the publisher contacted me saying that the section on history was very similar to something he found on the internet and he suspected I had plagiarised. I was devastated. I hadn't even gone to the website he mentioned. I explained that perhaps my lack of experience some how caused the problem, but I assured him that since I'd been a victim of plagiarism I would never intentionally set out to commit such an act. I re-wrote the offending chapter. In retrospect, I'm not sure what happened. Perhaps I had written notes that were not in my own words, though I thought that was not the case at the time. Even now, so many years later I feel sick when I think about the incident.
The internet has made it so simple to cut and paste someone else's words. It happens everyday. As writers we need to be vigilant; we must guard our writing against thieves, but we must also be very careful how we ourselves write, be certain that we are not inadvertently stealing someone else's work. Writers need to address this problem head on and with honesty.