top of page

Writing Ethically in the Digital Age

In today’s workplace, effective promotional writing is now a necessity. Besides writing copy for printed material such as brochures, product sheets and visual aids used in sales presentations, companies and organizations now need to produce content for web sites, blog posts, press releases and social media.

A common way to begin a writing task is to search the Internet for ideas and to see what others have written on a particular topic. While this helps stimulate your thinking and expand your knowledge, it also can lead to questionable writing practices such as borrowing heavily from a source without citing it, paraphrasing that remains very close to the original, unconscious plagiarism and even copyright infringement.

We all freely copy things we like and send them to others, use them on our social network sites or add them to our presentations and reports. Ethical writing does not prevent the use of other’s ideas and words, but it does require that the source be cited and fully credited whether the source is paraphrased, summarized or directly quoted.

Questionable writing practices Many questionable writing practices are not the result of overt intention by the writer to pass off other’s idea or work as his own. Rather, it is a failure to give credit where it is due – to cite the source using commonly accepted citation methods. Here are a few examples of questionable writing practices:

  • Patchwriting. The Citation Project, a 2008 multiinstitutional research project studying plagiarism in college student writing led by Rebecca Moore Howard of Syracuse University, defines patchwriting as “Restating a phrase, clause, or one or more sentences while staying close to the language or syntax of the source”. Similarly, The Bedford Handbook for Writers calls patchwriting “paraphrasing the source’s language too closely”. The writer deletes words or phrases from the source, substitutes synonyms and adds new phrases yet follows the structure of the source. The Citation Project contends that patchwriting is a misuse of sources but is not plagiarism because it does not rise to the level of theft. Rather, writers lapse into patchwriting when they don’t fully understand what the source is saying. Patchwriting becomes a way for the writer to learn the material by putting it in his own words.

  • Misuse of sources. Ethical writers do not give the impression that another’s ideas or words are their own by failing to cite sources. Instead, they use appropriate forms of citation such as quotation marks and indented paragraphs to fully identify and credit their sources. The Online Writing Lab (OWL) of Purdue University says a writer must “document any words, ideas, or other productions that originate somewhere outside of you” including words or ideas from printed publications or materials; information gained through interviewing or conversing; when using someone else’s exact words or a unique phrase; when reprinting graphics (diagrams, illustrations, charts, pictures, etc.); or when reusing or reposting digital information. If something is generally accepted as fact, is easy to find by looking in general reference sources, or is already known to readers, that information is considered common knowledge and does not require a citation.

  • Unconscious plagiarism. Sometimes called cryptomnesia, unconscious plagiarism is a function of the quirk in our memories. According to memory expert Henry Roediger from Washington University in St. Louis, it easier to remember information than to remember the source, and to remember information without knowing we’re remembering it.

Plagiarism Plagiarism is the act of appropriating another writer’s ideas or words and using them as one’s own original work. As the Internet has provided easy access to written material, the incidence of plagiarism has risen. In academia and journalism, plagiarism is considered academic dishonesty and a breach of journalistic ethics. Acts of plagiarism can violate copyright laws, except for fair use, which allows use of copyrighted material for specific purposes such as parody or satire. Writers can avoid charges of plagiarism by correctly and fully citing the source of the material. Copyright Copyright is legal protection for writers on how their original works are used. To qualify for copyright protection, the work must be tangible (i.e., exist in physical form) and original (i.e., independently created by the author and stemming from a creative effort).

Copyright exists from the moment a work is created and available in tangible form. In the United States, copyright extends for a fixed number of years after the creation or publication date, then expires at year-end (i.e., on December 31).

  • All copyrights for works published before 1923 have expired and the works are now in the public domain.

  • Works published between 1923 and 1964 are in the public domain unless the copyright was renewed.

  • Works published before 1978 without including the copyright notice (i.e., the word copyright or the copyright symbol © and the name of the copyright owner) are in the public domain.

  • For works published after March 1, 1989, copyright notice is not required as a condition of establishing copyright protection, though registration is required to bring a lawsuit for copyright infringement.

  • In 1998, legislation was passed that prevents any new works from entering the public domain until 2019. Beginning that year, works published in 1923 will enter the public domain and this will continue in subsequent years for all works published between 1923 and 1977.

Copyright law was written into the Constitution of the United States in 1887. Congress enacted the first federal copyright law (An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Securing the Copies of Maps, Charts and Books to the Authors and Proprietors of Such Copies) in May 1790 and the first work was registered two weeks later. In 1870 copyright functions were placed within the Library of Congress; the Copyright Office became a separate department within the Library of Congress in 1897. The copyright law has been revised repeatedly, in 1790, 1831, 1870, 1909, 1976 and 1998. The doctrine of fair use is an important limitation on the rights of the copyright owners. It was established in 1976 in recognition that strict application of copyright law would impede the production and distribution of works to the public. The rationale is that the public will benefit if there are uses for copyrighted material that do not constitute copyright infringement. The importance of ethical writing Ethical writing means properly crediting the sources from which information is gathered, avoiding outright theft of the work of others in the form of plagiarism, and abiding by copyright laws. Be aware of the trick of the human memory that leads to cryptomnesia. When conducting research on a topic, make notes, study them, then put them aside for at least 30 minutes before starting your own writing. Do not refer to the notes while writing; use them only to check what you have written to be sure you did not plagiarize.

bottom of page