How Search Engine Technology is Catching Plagiarists

Plagiarism, the very word strikes fear into the hearts of writers everywhere, forcing them to clutch their precious stories to their chests and never show them to a single, living soul. In ye olde days, there was no Google, no MSN, no Yahoo! There were simply two, little gems called “ethics” and “copyright.”

If you were lucky enough to drill down to the bottom of the ethics mine, you consciously knew that you’d be influenced by other writers–but you would expect Thor’s hammer to fall down on your head should you rip one of them off and sell a story using their words. Copyright, on the other hand, is that piece of fool’s gold that everyone buys but no one knows what to do with, because they forget that once you have it–you have to protect it or you lose it.

Enter the internet era with its torrent of words and images. Ever copy an image that you’ve searched for? Used it in a blog post? Did you check to see whether or not you legally could? What about an article? Have you ever used one or two sentences in an assignment because you were rushed and didn’t bother rewriting them?

Personally, I don’t believe that writers are malicious by nature, but I do think that we’ve forgotten to hunt for the copyright, to remember what rights it gives us, because there is so much material out there on the web. Well? I’m certainly not the first to worry about such a thing, nor will I be the last. Fortunately, people a heck of a lot smarter than me found a way to catch plagiarists using search engine technology.

How one Fansite used Google to Catch a Plagiarist

One of the most popular romance novel review sites on the web, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books caught a romance writer plagiarizing other authors by using Google. One of the members of the site (Candy) introduced her friend Kate to romance, by providing her with a range of books to read. After reading the romance novelist Cassie Edwards, she noticed something peculiar about the writing.

What especially caught her eye, however, were the didactic passages in the book. They were written in a distinctly different voice, and out of idle curiosity, she decided to Google certain phrases and sentences.

The results were…interesting. Kate was able to find large chunks of text from a few sources that seemed to have been inserted into Shadow Bear with little to no modification, mostly from Land of the Spotted Eagle by Luther Standing Bear and, I shit you not, an article about black-footed ferrets from the Defenders of Wildlife. –SOURCE: Cassie Edwards Extravaganza on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books

Needless to say, the site continued to post about their findings and their efforts led to other articles–even by the New York Times covering the plagiarism ordeal of Cassie Edwards–and official statements from the author and publisher.

This, my dear readers, was all done by bloggers using Google.

Should you Use Search Engine Technology to Fight Plagiarism?

Is there a better way to fight plagiarism than using Google to search for passages from your fiction? Before you start cutting and pasting your stories and articles into the search engines, check out This site has everything you need to know about plagiarism including its legal definition, unintentional and intentional forms of plagiarism, and tools to fight back. Schools are using one of products featured as a link off the website called “TurnItIn,” which has been dubbed highly successful.

Turnitin’s plagiarism prevention is often so successful that institutions using our system on a large scale see measurable rates of plagiarism drop to almost zero. —SOURCE:

But what about you? Me? Your publisher? Short of painstakingly cross-referencing every passage, chapter or block of text, there is a web-based technology recommended through the site., designed for corporate or professional use, is another version of the web-based software that can handle more searches than Google, Yahoo! or MSN. The sales brochure explains why, the biggest benefit being:

“Our database contains millions of published works unavailable through any online search engine.” —SOURCE: PDF Sales Sheet Download of iThenticate.

Unfortunately, here’s another reason why a proprietary software taking a nod from search engine technology might work more efficiently than the search engines themselves. There is a coding technique that site owners may use to send a message to the search engines that asks them not to add specific pages to their index.

You can use a special HTML < META > tag to tell robots not to index the content of a page, and/or not scan it for links to follow. SOURCE–Definition of Robots < META > tag

If your site or your pages aren’t showing up in a search engine’s index, the results of your painstaking efforts may be spotty at best. Keep in mind, too, that the technique referenced above is not a guarantee, for reasons mentioned in the source I linked to.

After checking with programmers and other resources (please correct me if I’m wrong) there is also no way to completely stop a “scraper” that takes your content and reprints it in a spammy blog, nor is there a fool-proof way to prevent cutting and pasting without potentially affecting site usability.

Other Ways to Fight Plagiarism

Here are some other ways people have learned to fight plagiarism:

While all three of these are great ideas, that last concept–preparing a plan to fight plagiarism before it strikes you–is really something actionable that you can do today. Keep in mind, though, that copyright is not that cut and dried, like I mentioned in my post: When do you need a copyright? For more links on plagiarism, visit this list of resources on plagiarism.

If you suspect that you have been a victim of online plagiarism, don’t forget to consider your options carefully and, if necessary, hire a cyber trial lawyer like Dozier Internet Law, P.C.

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Monica Valentinelli is an author, artist, and narrative designer who writes about magic, mystery, and mayhem. Her portfolio includes stories, games, comics, essays, and pop culture books.

In addition to her own worlds, she has worked on a number of different properties including Vampire: the Masquerade, Shadowrun, Hunter: the Vigil, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, and Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

Looking for Monica’s books and games that are still in print? Visit Monica Valentinelli on Amazon’s Author Central or a bookstore near you.

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