Accidental Plagiarism and How to Avoid It

Understand accidental plagiarism as a self-published author by learning what qualifies as plagiarizing, how it can impact your career, and how to avoid it.

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Picture the scene: You’ve gone through the full journey of self-publishing, and now your book is finally ready to share with eager readers! But right after you cast it into the world, you find out you’ve plagiarized. 

Perhaps you’ve been contacted by a curious reader who noticed the similarities, by the original author of the plagiarized content, or worse…a lawyer. 

While most authors wouldn’t dream of copying someone else’s work, it’s possible to accidentally plagiarize without even knowing it. 

Plagiarizing has more consequences for self-published authors than just embarrassment. It can cause a loss of reputation, can lead to your book being pulled from the shelves, and other complications that can really throw a wrench in your emerging career.

Avoid hitting this dreaded bump in the road by learning the ins and outs of plagiarism and how to avoid it as a self-published author.

What is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is “the act of taking someone else’s work and passing it off as one’s own.” 

Note that the definition doesn’t specify taking someone else’s specific words. Plagiarism goes beyond copying and pasting someone else’s work to call it your own. 

Claiming someone else’s ideas as your own — whether you used the exact language or not — can also qualify as plagiarism. 

Types of Plagiarism

There are a few different types of plagiarism, all of which can cause some legal issues for self-published writers. These include:

  • Mosaic plagiarism: Quoting an original statement without using quotation marks, or when a work or piece of a work is paraphrased while still using the original author’s structure and meaning. 
  • Self-plagiarism: A term for re-submitting old works and framing them as being new.
  • Patchwriting plagiarism: When you paraphrase a passage of another writer’s work, but leave it too similar to the original and don’t use proper citations.
  • Accidental plagiarism: When a writer doesn’t cite their sources, or misquotes their sources, or unintentionally paraphrases another author’s work by using too similar of words, groups of words, and/or sentence structure (without citing the original source).

You might be thinking, what about ghost writing? Does this count as plagiarism?

While plagiarism and ghostwriting both conceal the original author's name, the difference is that a plagiarist copies the content without the permission of the real author.

Writing and self-publishing a book can be a lot of work, and some typos and inconsistencies are bound to get overlooked. That’s why it’s so important to hire a professional editor if you can!

But when it comes to the risk of plagiarism, double- and triple-checking that your work doesn’t plagiarize is essential to continuing a successful career as a writer. If not, you could run into one of the stressful consequences below.

The Risks of Plagiarism

Accidental or not, plagiarism comes with risks that could heavily impact your publishing process and work as an author (to say the least).

Penalties for plagiarism not only affect your professional image as writer, but can have a negative impact on you legally as well. These penalties for plagiarism could include:

  • Financial loss: Not only can you lose a book deal or the potential for loyal readers, but you’re vulnerable to being sued by the original author.
  • A blow to your reputation: Once you’ve been exposed for plagiarism, your reputation as a plagiarizer can live on the web for the rest of your life. It can even show up when people try to research you for author suggestions, or media outlets are researching you for interviews. 
  • Jail: That’s right — if you’ve plagiarized for financial gain, you can be arrested. Violating copyright infringement laws is a criminal offense. 

When it comes to plagiarism, claiming that it was accidental isn’t likely to protect you. Luckily there are systems and tools in place to help you avoid plagiarism as a self-published author.

How to Avoid Plagiarism

Don’t let these risks scare you away from writing and self-publishing your book! There are plenty of tricks and resources to help you feel confident you’ve written a completely original, legally-sound book. 

  • Use plagiarism detection tools. Websites and tools such as Grammarly and Article Checker have resources where you can input your book’s text, and the site will help detect any possibilities of plagiarism. A basic rule for citing sources is to acknowledge literally anything that wasn’t yours — quotes, ideas, paraphrasing, and more.
  • Flag quotes and other references during your writing process so you can go back and ensure you’ve properly cited each one. Tools like Easybib can help you build the proper bibliography for your work and ensure every bit of information in it is filled out properly. 
  • Never copy and paste, even if you’re pulling a quote. This is easily tracked, as many scholars and publishers use easily accessible text matching tools. It’s simply not worth the risk. 
  • Put everything in your own words. Even structuring the information in your book the same as the original source is risky. Use your own words, voice, and structure to get the point across. 
  • Create your own thoughts. Gather your research and instead of only relaying the information you find, craft your own thoughts on the information as you perceive it, and center your writing around that. 
  • Use quotation marks. Double check that for the moments when you’re using the words of others, you’re always using quotation marks and crediting the source.

Crediting yourself for the ideas of others — whether it’s accidental or not — is a risky move that never ends up being worth it.

While most self-published authors don’t set out to plagiarize, there are many ways in which slip-ups can occur. By taking a few extra steps like using plagiarism detectors, knowing how to properly cite a source, making sure to use quotations and focusing on forming your own ideas, you’re on the right track. 

Next time you dig into writing, review the above methods of avoiding plagiarism. And if you’d like to be extra cautious (there’s no such thing as too much caution when it comes to avoiding plagiarizing), one of the most reliable sources is an experienced editor. 

Editors are well-versed in what to look for and making sure you have quotations, citations and other methods of avoiding plagiarism. Learn more about why you need a professional editor >

Adam user

President & CEO,
Steuben Press

Adam Ellis has worked in the book industry since 2002, when he was first exposed to the wonderful world of Self Publishing. Over the years he has worked with thousands of authors and helped to produce, print and publish countless books.

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I worked with Jamie Howell at Steuben, editing, formatting, and printing my first book, Divine Ordinariness. She did a superb job offering ideas that truly enhanced the final product. Sharp, responsive, creative, and quick processionals, a pleasure to work with. Jamie even stopped the press to make a major revision when I got midstream deal-breaker feedback and had to rework the project. Steuben is the way to go for fine quality service. Thanks a lot, Steuben.

– Catherine Scott, Evergreen, CO