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6 ways to avoid online plagiarism

With such easy access to information via Google and other search engines, unintentional plagiarism has grown. Know the value of citing and linking to put the kibosh on plagiarism.

Church employees and volunteers generally are honest people who would never intentionally pilfer anything. But easy access to seemingly limitless information on the Internet makes it so easy to copy content without thought— using another person's original writing, speech and/or idea without getting permission or giving credit. Here are guidelines to help reduce occurrences of plagiarism:

1. Give full citations.
Changing a few words doesn't always prevent plagiarism. Include where you found the information even when paraphrasing or quoting indirectly. Give the original author's name, title of the work and the source of information if applicable—such as a website address, book or magazine title, PowerPoint deck, etc.

Don't use a citation like you would in a thesis or school report—incorporate the language as simply or informally as possible for readability (use footnotes sparingly, if ever) or listening.

For a written example:

Ask God for wisdom and courage for the living, as Glory E. Dharmaraj, executive with the Women's Division, United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, expressed in a September commentary for UMNS.

Or if you were to put the paraphrase into a podcast or other verbal format:

Glory E. Dharmaraj in a September commentary for UMNS said we should ask God for wisdom and courage for the living.

2. Ask permission.
A surefire way to prevent plagiarism is to ask the author in writing (e-mail is fine) if you can quote from his or her work. Give the context in which the information will be used—such as a newsletter, blog posting or letter from the pastor—and what will be used. Most authors are happy to say yes. Although you may be legally entitled to quote from the material if it has been widely circulated, getting permission is strongly recommended.

3. Use content from original sources whenever possible.
Avoid quoting from second- or third-hand sources. For example, if you use Wikipedia to learn about hunger in America, don't quote from Wikipedia. Use the online encyclopedia to identify first-hand sources and go directly to them for the information. The further away a citation is from the original source, the more likely it contains erroneous material, is taken out of context, or has been previously plagiarized.

4. Don't use material from social media without verifying its origin.
Quoting from someone's e-mail or Facebook page requires verification—you don't know if the individual really did send the e-mail or if there might be an imposter on Facebook. If the individual doesn't know where the information came from, don't use it unless you can find the original sourcing.

5. Use a plagiarism checker.
There are software programs and free websites (such as Plagiarism Checker) that review documents for plagiarism. Free checkers use search engines to check for like chunks of copy submitted in a text box while paid ones use dedicated databases of complete works for comparisons. What should be checked? That depends on your own comfort level. Newsletters circulated within the congregation would not be as worrisome as an article your pastor is publishing in an international journal.

6. Use online resources for education.
Because unintentional plagiarism has become so prevalent in higher education, many colleges and universities have developed extensive, free websites that provide information on how to avoid plagiarizing. If nothing else, circulate a list of these to people who communicate on behalf of the church and ask them to review the material to provide a general education in avoiding plagiarism. Some of these sites are Purdue University's Online Writing Lab, which includes a guide to quoting, paraphrasing and summarizing; Duke University Libraries' guide to basic and complex citation; and Indiana University Bloomington Writing Tutorial Services, which offers a primer on recognizing and avoiding plagiarism. 

What if your material is stolen?
Finally, if you discover that your work has been plagiarized, address the misuse immediately to avoid further theft of content. Contact the users, taking into consideration that they may have unintentionally plagiarized. Request that they either give credit to the church employee in their writing, link to the original work online, or retract the reproduction. Rarely—but at times—a letter written from the church's attorney might be required for a remedy if the content is unique or potentially has high value (could be used in a book some day, for example), such as a pastor's sermons or writing.

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