Image Credit: Pexels
Image Credit: Pexels

This post is the first of our blog series leading up to the 63rd annual National Conference of Law Reviews. Guest contributors will be sharing what they will be presenting at the NCLR conference, how they have been helping to organize it, or why they are attending the conference this March. In this post, Cassandra Klusmeyer writes about what she will be presenting at the conference: how law reviews can identify and prevent plagiarism.

Plagiarism is a scandalous topic in the world of academia, especially when it comes to scholarly legal writing. Hopefully your law review will never have to address potential plagiarism issues, but the reality is that your law review might at some point. While the term “plagiarism” brings with it a lot of negative connotation, sometimes there truly is not any mal-intent on the part of an author; authors might not understand just how strict the citation requirements are in legal writing. As such, plagiarism happens; sometimes it is more obvious and sometimes it is more subtle. Either way, it can be a sticky topic for law reviews to deal with. Below are some tips and tricks on spotting plagiarism in a submission, addressing it with your author, and preventing it going forward.

We all know what plagiarism is because it has been ingrained within us throughout our educational studies - it is when you try to pass someone else’s work off as your own. But what does that mean in the context of legal writing and how do you spot it?

What Constitutes Plagiarism?

Many law reviews throughout the country have their own standards of what they require in terms of what does, and does not, need to be cited. Therefore, definitions of what might be viewed as perceived plagiarism can vary. For example, while some law reviews do not have a specific rule regarding quoted material, some law reviews require that the author place any series of three words or more directly taken from another source into quotation marks. Failure to do so, would, in effect, be placing too much of another author’s words into the words of your author and could be perceived as plagiarism.

Regardless of whether your law review has a specific rule or not, be on the lookout for some of the following, which can easily be “copied and pasted” without mal-intent to plagiarize:

  • Footnotes and parentheticals
  • Syllabi from court cases
  • Facts from court cases or court documents
  • Introductions and commentary from statutes or other scholarly materials

How Do We Spot Plagiarism?

Spotting plagiarism really comes down to each law review’s general process. Often the individual editor is checking the sources for each sentence, and frequently it is this individual editor who realizes that the author’s wordage is directly recited from, or is too similar to, the cited source. Alternatively, your law review might institute a process at the outset, such as Lexis Nexis’ SafeAssign, as further discussed below, that might help you spot plagiarism before it becomes a bigger issue.

What Do You Do When Your Editors Need to Communicate With an Author Who May Have Plagiarized?

When you discover that you might have an article with plagiarism issues, it can be a bit intimidating because you have to figure out how to address the issue with your author in a polite, courteous, and professional manner. After all, you do not want to start accusing other professionals, legal scholars, attorneys, or judges of plagiarism. Instead, approach the situation delicately. Along those lines, here are some tips that can help facilitate that uncomfortable dialogue:

First, understand that not all apparent plagiarism is intentional, and do not immediately jump to the conclusion that your author intended to plagiarize. Keep in mind that your author has likely spent a lot of time on his or her article, and it is surely and justifiably a source of pride for them. As such, remember to be thoughtful so that your choice of words does not insinuate that you are disparaging your author’s work. On that note, it might be best to try to avoid using the word “plagiarism” when speaking to your author.

Second, explain to your author that it has come to your attention that some of the wording in the sources appear to align closely with the words chosen by the author. At this stage, it is beneficial to have a highlighted copy of the source with the similar language and a copy of the author’s article to provide him or her a side-by-side illustration. In having this discussion, it helps to explain to your author the process your law review uses to review cited sources, as this is frequently when the issue reveals itself.

Further, this is where it helps for your law review to have a specific rule regarding quoted material. For example, say your law review has the “three words or more in quotes” rule - you might be able to explain to your author that, while you understand the author was using a cited source as inspiration or direct support, your law review requires, as a general rule, that any series of three words or more directly from an outside source be placed in quotation marks. This helps the author understand where you are coming from and does not make your discussion seem as accusatory; instead it just appears as though you are following procedure.

Third, make sure you have a plan to address your plagiarism concerns before speaking to your author and then be prepared to explain the remedy to him or her. Try to explain that you may need to add in some quotations here and there or, in the more egregious situations, explain that it may be necessary for the author to re-draft certain sentences. Hopefully, it will not be necessary to turn away the article completely, but know that this is a possibility as well. It never hurts to consult with your faculty advisors for guidance in such a situation.

How Can You Prevent Potential Plagiarism Issues as a Law Review?

In order to avoid dealing with plagiarism issues at all, it helps to put in place some mechanisms that work to prevent the issue at the outset. Outlined below are a few tips that might help you avoid this issue completely:

Provide Guidelines Up Front:

It is a good idea to place certain publication guidelines on your law review’s website. Further, if your law review solicits articles, give your authors these guidelines up front, so they can refer to them while drafting. This puts them on notice of your rules. Your guidelines might include some of the following, as rules or helpful tips to your potential authors:

  • Include any rule you might have regarding quoted material (you guessed it - think the “three words or more in quotes” rule, as an example).
  • Advise against “copy and paste” when researching and drafting, as this is where many issues arise. You can be specific here. Feel free to draw special attention to the most common “copy and paste” materials: footnotes and parentheticals, facts or syllabi from cases, etc.

Utilize Plagiarism Resources:

Most of us are familiar with the popular website (“Turn it In”). Turn it In works great for collegiate level writing and some legal writing, but unfortunately what it does not do is scan for similar words and phrases from a large number of scholarly legal writing or case law. Instead, I recommend looking into Lexis Nexis SafeAssign, which is similar to Turn it In, but it is offered via the Lexis Nexis platform. It is definitely a good idea to run your potential articles through Lexis Nexis SafeAssign before beginning the editing process, and it may even be a good idea to run the article through Lexis Nexis SafeAssign again towards the end of the editing process.

While these things might seem like a hassle up front, it is a lot easier to deal with potential plagiarism issues at the outset, rather than in the middle of the editing process.

If you’d like to know more, I hope to see you at my presentation on plagiarism at the 63rd Annual National Conference of Law Reviews hosted by Florida Coastal School of Law on March 23-26, 2017!

Good luck and happy editing!

Cassandra Klusmeyer
This post was contributed by Cassandra Klusmeyer, attorney for Fidelity National Title Group in Jacksonville, Florida