The Nuances of Social Media Plagiarism: An Overview for Academics

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Obviously, plagiarism is not the way to advance your academic career. When publicized, cases of plagiarism in academia can ruin a reputation or even destroy a career. It’s easy to assume that any scholar guilty of plagiarism is dishonest, lacks academic integrity, and can’t be trusted, but it’s not always so cut and dried. 

We live in an increasingly digital world, which means it can be confusing to determine what constitutes a case of social media plagiarism, and academics run the risk of inadvertently plagiarizing content on their social media profiles. At the same time, they are at risk of having others—intentionally or unintentionally—plagiarize their work on these online platforms.

It might seem outside the scope of academia, but that is only because little research has been done into social media plagiarism. It happens all the time. It somehow doesn’t feel as dishonest to copy someone’s tweet, Facebook post, or Instagram caption and pass it off as your own as it does to copy an entire research paper, but the principle behind it remains the same. In academia, citations are everything. All you have to do is give due credit to the source of the information, and then you’re free to share it. If you’re unsure how to cite sources from social media, get the help you need with our deluxe academic package

The nature of social media makes it difficult to tackle questions of plagiarism and originality. How can we determine who said something first? What does original content mean when it comes to social media, which is largely based on sharing and reposting? Let’s explore these issues.

Types of social media plagiarism

  1. Cropping images: If you post an image and crop out the signature, watermark, or name of the original poster, you are plagiarizing their work. Many academics post their own graphs, charts, and data. If they include a signature or a watermark, it’s there specifically to signify ownership of the content, so you should never remove such information.
  2. Reposting (with a few edits): If you copy someone else’s content, change a few words, and then post it as your own, you are plagiarizing their work. This is especially egregious on academic Twitter. You already know this would be a clear-cut case of plagiarism in an academic paper, and it’s no different on social media.
  3. Lack of citations: If you quote someone without giving them due credit or pass off someone else’s idea as your own, you are plagiarizing their work, whether it’s in the classroom, the boardroom, or on Facebook. Just because it’s happening on social media doesn’t mean you don’t have to uphold the standards of academic ethics.
  4. Files and video: If you take someone’s slideshow, video content, presentation, PDF, or another type of shared media and attach your name to it, you are plagiarizing their work. With so many file-sharing sites out there, lots of people stoop to that level with little or no shame. This is no different from including another scholar’s charts or other content in your paper and passing them off as your own.

Protecting yourself from social media plagiarism

The details of what constitutes social media plagiarism are still up for debate, and one might think that if somebody puts something on the internet, it’s up for grabs. Of course, that is not true, especially as the internet occupies an increasingly larger place in our lives. Though it is generally not illegal, it’s still unethical and a violation of intellectual property rights to plagiarize, even if it seems innocuous when done through an app or a blog. If you have any doubts about the requirements of your journal or institution regarding citations, check out how we can do a requirements review to give you peace of mind. After all, there aren’t always strict standards for online content, this being such a new territory.

However, it’s not exactly the Wild Wild West out there. Some social media sites have clauses in their terms and conditions pertaining to copyright infringement. For example, Facebook allows users to report cases of stolen content. If the platform investigates and finds that the claims are legitimate, the offending account can be suspended or deleted—not exactly prison for plagiarism, but it’s one way to protect your work.

Unfortunately, due to the fleeting nature of social media posts, plagiarism can be difficult to deal with, so if you feel that you’re the victim of social media plagiarism, your best course of action is to shout it from the rooftops, call out the plagiarist, and become an advocate for the protection of intellectual property. However, do make sure that your claims are well-founded before you accuse someone—if it turns out they didn’t plagiarize you, your reputation will almost certainly suffer. If someone has stolen your work and is attempting to profit from it, take as many screenshots as possible and immediately contact an attorney specializing in intellectual property and cyber law. 

Accidental plagiarism

If you are an academic, it’s likely that you use the internet to engage with other academics and follow their work. You will read their social media posts, peruse their journal articles, and subscribe to their newsletters and Substacks. You may repost or share their insights and data if you find it valuable—after all, sharing is a primary function of social media.

Occasionally, this can result in accidental plagiarism. Ideas or even quotes can be unwittingly plagiarized when the author genuinely believes that they created the content. Even if there was no malicious intent, accidental plagiarism still constitutes a case of intellectual property theft. Before you publish and share that blog post, run it through our plagiarism checker.

Social media is where many academics get the word out about their research. Copying their work, even if done out of admiration, is pulling the rug from under them and diminishing them as thought leaders. It’s easy to hide behind relative anonymity on the internet, but a good rule of thumb is that if you would not plagiarize someone else’s thesis, then don’t plagiarize their well-researched Twitter thread. Even if the internet may feel entirely different from the real world, it’s still composed of real people, and the same ethical rules apply.

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