It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,1 it was the New York Times. Specifically, it was a Times article that discussed computer programs and other techniques designed to root out plagiarism.2 The article revealed that there is now software that can look for a lengthy passage, like a string of pearls,3 in a new document that is identical to a passage in a previously published work. In another method, every fifth word from sample passages is removed, and the author has to fill in the blanks4 to reveal his or her familiarity with the work. These high-tech ways to spot literary theft will surely rob copycats of the sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care.5
When I first read the Times article, I remember thinking, it's a good thing6 and attention must be paid.7 After all, as a writer, I find plagiarism to be a constant concern. (Although from time to time, I have to admit, I shall consider it.8) Of course, it can be hard to define. When you steal from one author, it's plagiarism; if you steal from many, it's research.9 One might say that a writer should neither a borrower nor a lender be.10 On the other hand, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.11
This article was originally published with the title Copy That.