What to Do When You're Caught Biting (aka Plagiarizing)
"See my rhymes, are the type of fly rhymes That can only get down with my crew. And if you try, to take lines or bite rhymes,
We'll show you how the refugees do."1
Many who've written for public consumption have been there. You've researched the topic, done your due diligence, name-dropped your writing heroes, cited your sources, and published your article only to get a message from a writer you've never heard of, a day after publication, stating that fifteen years ago (or ten minutes prior to your work's publication) they said more or less the same thing.
No matter the timeline, no matter the intention, you've been accused of biting someone else's work.
What to do if you've been called out for biting
"And for you biting zealots Your rap styles are relics. No matter who you damage, You're still a false prophet."
At first, this callout (hopefully done in private)2 may feel like an assault on your credibility. The offended writer may be pissed off, and may be coming at you hard. Take a breath. Everyone makes mistakes in this regard. Know that there is a way forward.
If, by some act of grand assholery (or laziness), you intentionally bit someone else's work, just apologize. Immediately cite their work, and let them know you've done so. Don't make a big deal about it. The offended will most likely appreciate the quick response, and smile while remembering the first time they got called out for biting someone else's stuff. You've turned a very bad deed into a very good one. Well done.
If, however, you didn't intentionally bite the person's work, having no knowledge of their previous writing, ask them to point to where in their work they've stated what you have stated so you can cite it. It doesn't matter if you knew about the previous writing. Work that's been published before yours that makes the same claim should be cited. So, get on it. (See above).3
But, what if you don't agree with their assessment? What if after reading their work you decide their claims are illegitimate (as in, they did not say in their work what they think they said)? Here, you have a couple options.
First, you can cite their work anyway. This is the quickest and easiest path. Even if you disagree with their assessment, you can cite their work, while at the same time stating your disagreement in the citation. In other words, just because you've cited a perceived similarity, does not mean you can't disagree with it and state as such.
The second option is to not cite them, which is handled in one of two ways:
- Ignore them, or
- Get into a lengthy debate about why you don't believe a citation is necessary.
In truth, ignoring an offended writer will only postpone option 2. So, if you're set on not citing, best get ready to dig in. You're about to enter a world of endless back-and-forths. And, for good reason.
Writers are ferociously protective of their work (see below). If they feel slighted, and especially if they feel that no recourse is being taken, they are likely to die fighting you on this. If you feel strongly about your stance, and have good reasons to specifically not cite this source, by all means go for it. But, don't be surprised if the row gets lengthy and even a bit public.
Being checked on biting is an opportunity to build comradeship
"Check out the retrograde motion. Kill the notion of biting and recycling, And calling it your own creation."
When someone makes it known that you've bitten their work, be it a concept, a novel idea, a specific turn of phrase, or coinage, use this check as an opportunity to break literary bread with a fellow writer. Being called out on a missed citation can be a path toward comradeship.
In becoming a writer, you have signed up to be part of an enormous community of public thinkers. It's old-school, built entirely on reputation. Your ideas. Your style. Your credibility. All is spread word-of-mouth. After all, reputation is everything, and many will protect it to the end. Citing your sources is about giving props to your comrades. It's you helping to protect someone else's reputation. It's you being awesome.
Contrary to what you may feel at first, citing other people's work is not an admission of unoriginality or ignorance on a subject. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Citing people's work is a way of building your own ideas off of others and showing how you've done so. It highlights originality by showing how you're taking the conversation in a new direction.
Citing your sources also shows that you are part of the conversation, that you keep tabs on what's being said. It bolster's your credibility. It does not diminish it. It aligns your work with a scene. Citing allows you to flank your position with the ideas of others with whom you want to associate. Citing shows your readers who's in your crew. It turns the inevitably solo act of writing into a communal act of public discourse.
Do your best
"Took it to the heart, but every actor plays his part. As long as someone was listening, I knew it was a start. For me to get my chance, grab my pen and revamp."
In the end, there's only one governing principle regarding biting: do your best.
The digital record may appear to be etched in pixelated stone, but for anyone who's tried to be diligent with their citing of digital sources, the experience is much more slippery, discursive, and ephemeral. It's not always possible to cite every idea contained in your work, especially outside institutional academia where books and articles still form the basis of easily-retrievable documented ideas. Online, where written content parades in the form of comments, posts in forums, ruminations in newsletters, and blog posts, citing your sources can be tricky.
Take your lumps, and do your best. Righting a wrong is often more productive than getting it right in the first place.
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All quotes are from the song, "Zealots," by The Fugees. From The Score, 1996. Study this album.↩
I recently caught someone biting my stuff (though I can't tell if it was intentional or not), and immediately went online to call them out, which was me breaking my own rule. Then I remembered to take a beat. I quickly deleted the comment and reached out to the writer privately. As a rule of thumb, if the writer seems like a decent person, always try to settle the situation in the DMs. Fuck online flame wars (when a seemingly honorable person's rep is at stake).↩
IMO, publication of an actual article or book (digital or otherwise) still rules the day. However, with short-form online content, I'll cite a source only if I can trace a consistent, repeated argument, idea, or concept. But, I draw the line at comments and one-off social media posts. If you got something to say, and want credit for it, put it in a piece of writing with substance. If you take the time to write something real, I'll take the time to cite you.↩