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FIELD NOTES: The Dreaded P-Word

I use an online tool called Grammarly to help me with my writing. It checks my work for grammatical, spelling, and usage errors as I type away. It's not perfect, but it catches many of my more egregious mistakes. The other thing it does is check my work for plagiarism. It does this by comparing what I write to its index of everything else on the Internet and offering a percentage assessment of how "common" my text is. Almost anything I write will score three or four percent since all writers tend to use certain words and phrases. I don't get too concerned until that number pushes up around ten percent. 

This article, by the way, scores out at 2%, with Grammarly noting that it shares some common verbiage with an article titled "Fellow Catches Big Fish That Is Then Caught By Something Else," and another called "I Didn't Get My Law Degree from a Cracker Jack Box."  Yeah, not going to lose a lot of sleep over either of those, although I am kind of fascinated by that law degree one.

Ironically, one of the highest plagiarism scores I have ever received was my author profile, which came in at 30 percent. While I promise you I am me and not one-third someone else, the score makes a certain amount of sense. We all tend to list our accomplishments and achievements using similar language. 

Few writers set out to intentionally copy someone else's work, but mind and memory work in strange ways. For years, when someone would ask me to "start from the beginning," I would jokingly say, "When I was five, I went to my Uncle Ned's farm, and there were cows and pigs and chickens." I used this phrase dozens of times before realizing it is virtually an exact quote of a line from an episode of The Bob Newhart Show I probably saw just once when I was ten or eleven. It somehow got stuck deep in the recesses of my mind and eventually reappeared as what I believed was an original thought. As a writer, that does give me pause. What other "original" ideas of mine come from 70s sitcoms? 

One of the weirdest examples of plagiarism, or more accurately its first cousin copyright infringement, involved the singer-songwriter, John Fogerty. His song "Old Man Down the Road," from the 1985 album "Centerfield," was a huge hit. It was alleged, however, that he copied the tune from another song written twenty years earlier. The case eventually went to court, and the judge determined that Fogarty had indeed illegally copied the music from a song called "Run Through the Jungle" written by... John Fogerty. Yes, he was found guilty of plagiarizing his own work. The lawsuit was brought by his former record company who asserted the rights to the original song. Legally, I suppose this made sense, but come on, no record buyer consciously or unconsciously decided to buy one work instead of the other, so I'm not sure how the record company was injured.

It turns out that self-plagiarism is a real thing, though, especially in academic circles where professors are under pressure to publish a certain number of scholarly articles each year. They sometimes "recycle" their own work, which is considered academic fraud and a big no-no. 

As for us regular ol' writers, I cannot imagine anyone making much of a fuss about such things, so be sure to watch for my new short story, "The Brody Batch." It's the story of an attractive woman who is bringing up three very lovely squirrels. I won't spoil the rest.  


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