Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Tracking plagiarism on the web

Back in May, a magazine assigned me an article on electronic trials (the effective use of modern technology during trials). I mentioned an article on the same topic I recently wrote for my column in another magazine. The editor then emailed me a link to that very article reprinted on another site under another person’s byline.

She said she hoped I was fairly compensated for this reprint. I was not. In fact, I lost time that day stewing over this blatant act of plagiarism.

The one smart thing I did was to get an independent media outlet to check this out. You can read the story here. (Thanks to Derek Finkle of the Canadian Writers Group for setting this in motion.)

The one dumb thing I did was set out to waste time creating Google Alerts to help me uncover any other instances of plagiarism.

My method: create three Alerts per article. Each alert consisted of a sentence or statement lifted verbatim from legitimate instances of my work as published on the web.

A month and a half later, I’ve “uncovered” plenty of false positives but no actual infractions, so I’ve stopped creating alerts and have started to delete the ones turning up false positives.

My lesson? If Alerts aren’t finding any instances of plagiarism, maybe:

  • people are not plagiarizing my stuff
  • Google Alerts aren’t turning up instances of plagiarism
  • Alerts only seek instances created after Alerts themselves are created
  • there’s some other explanation

(BTW, are you wondering how to avoid plagiarism? Read this article.)

Although I’ve since calmed down, I wish I could find some effective method of tracking whether my words are published elsewhere on the web without my permission. A writers’ group (Professional Writers Association of Canada) I belong to is currently creating great new web tools and I hope, in a future phase of development, that we license effective plagiarism-detecting tools.


Meanwhile, fellow writers, in my shoes, what would you have done?