Thoughts On Plagiarism As A Thief, Blogger, And Author

On Jan 2, 2024, Claudine Gay resigned as the president of Harvard University amid public outcry over her failure to support the safety of Jews on campus before Congress and allegations of approximately 50 counts of plagiarism.

As an author and blogger, I observed the public judgment with fascination, considering that plagiarism has been regarded as the cardinal sin for every writer since time immemorial. Plagiarism involves stealing someone else’s work, a universally recognized wrongdoing.

Most of us don’t come from ultra-wealthy families, attend private boarding schools like Philips Exeter Academy, and then go to the top private universities for our PhDs. Despite our lack of privilege and opportunity, we still have to compete in a rigged world to provide for our families. Therefore, it’s beneficial to learn from the mistakes of the elites so we can better ourselves.

Initially, I reviewed Claudine Gay’s instances of plagiarism and didn’t find them particularly concerning. It appeared she mostly wasn’t deploying the proper use of quotation marks when citing another academic’s work. Instead, she sourced them in her papers in various places.

Then I saw something baffling.

Plagiarizing In The Acknowledgement Section

Claudine Gay copied verbatim several sentences of another professor’s acknowledgments section for her own acknowledgements section in her PhD dissertation paper. Bizarre! The acknowledgments section is meant to be brimming with joy and gratitude toward those who aided the author in completing their work.

For my book with Portfolio Penguin, never would it have occurred to me to employ “duplicative content” in expressing gratitude to my wife, editor, parents, sister, and friends. I used this section to write freely.

The top two yellow highlights are attributed to Claudine Gay in the acknowledgments section of her Ph.D. dissertation. The bottom two highlights are from Jennifer Hochschild, a professor at Harvard University.

Upon encountering this instance of plagiarism, my perspective on the gravity of Claudine Gay’s offense shifted. Unlike the ease of copying and pasting available today, back in 1997, one had to deliberately type out words, considering the internet was only in its early stages.

Why would someone copy someone else in a section so insignificant in a research paper? This is considered low-grade plagiarism. But it may explain why there are 50 accusations of plagiarism in only 11 papers.

If you believe you can escape consequences, the tendency is to engage in more questionable acts. This became evident in my elementary school days in Taipei, Taiwan.

Given we had no money, my friends and I would collect spare change found around our houses, pool it together, and purchase a giant Slurpee cup. Before filling the Slurpee, we’d cram in as many candy bars as possible.

Successfully executing our candy heist for years, I adopted a more casual attitude towards stealing in middle school and high school. While not a kleptomaniac, I developed a habit of taking more than what was justified. For instance, my friends and I would also fill up our water cups with soda at McDonald’s. Maybe it’s because I felt entitled since I worked there for $4/hour and could eat all I wanted.

In high school, my thieving ways finally caught up with me when a friend and I were apprehended attempting to steal a Marithé et François Girbaud shirt and jeans from a department store. Taken to the backroom, we received a lecture and awaited our parents’ arrival.

The absence of consequences fueled a habit of taking without repercussions until the day of reckoning.

Claudine Gay’s plagiarism of her acknowledgements section as a 26-27-year-old PhD student might have been her academic Slurpee cup moment. While it didn’t cause significant harm, it potentially set a precedent that plagiarism was something she could evade punishment for.

Thoughts On Plagiarism As A Blogger

You might find it intriguing that each time I publish a new post, including this one, I encounter word-for-word plagiarism from at least five websites. Some website owners simply scrape my RSS feed and reproduce my content verbatim.

In the early days of Financial Samurai, I attempted to halt this plagiarism. Initially, I would send an email, urging them to respect the writer’s code and create original content. Subsequently, I even resorted to using a cease and desist letter template with more forceful language. The results were mixed – sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

Frustration and anger welled up. Why couldn’t these individuals produce their own original content? It’s not that hard, is it?

After several years of attempting to combat this issue, I threw in the towel. Every time I convinced one website to cease, another would effortlessly take its place. Over a decade ago, I also disabled all my link back notifications, which used to alert me whenever another website copied my work. Some websites were so lazy that they left the links back to my posts in the content they copied.

For a while, blissful ignorance prevailed. I trusted Google to credit the original author most of the time, so I decided to let things be.

Example of a blogger plagiarizing Financial Samurai
Example of a blogger plagiarizing Financial Samurai. Copied my tagline, my title, took my chart and changed the source to his own

Reminded Of Plagiarism Again As a Blogger

After about five years of relative peace due to ignorance, I was reminded about the annoyance of plagiarism when I wrote a new cost called, How To Be More Creative: Thoughts From A Writer, Artist, and Pianist. For my post, I asked Colleen Kong-Savage, an illustrator for Financial Samurai, her thoughts on creativity.

I quoted her perspective below,

“What works best is that you have some structure in place – boundaries or a set of rules. It gives the artwork some focus. In Charlie’s example it was the timeframe. For me, maybe it’ll be a limited color palette. Or maybe it’ll be a theme or it’ll be variations of a shape.

Visual arts is not just drawing. It’s color, design, ideas, and feeling. We all have art tendencies. Color – we get dressed by deciding what colors match or go with patterns. Design – shifting furniture around in the room to create flow and balance the space. 

I get a lot of ideas from seeing/hearing other people’s creative work. You remix those same building blocks/legos – it’s all been done – but you put in your handprints – your style, your sensibilities – and that’s what makes it an original. 

Scraper Sites Get More Sophisticated

No sooner had I published the post than Colleen contacted me, expressing frustration and asking why I changed her words. Perplexed, I had no idea what she was referring to, as I had simply copy-pasted her advice into my post and provided a link back to her website with her approval. I believed I was being helpful, offering exposure and a valuable backlink, the currency of the web.

It turned out that Colleen also had Google alerts for mentions of her name on the internet. When I published my post, a scraper site reproduced it but altered about 30% of my words, including her passage. It seemed the scraper sites were becoming more sophisticated to rank on Google.

Fortunately, I’ve encountered only a couple of incidents where a scraper site outranked my original article on Google. There may be more instances, but I don’t bother checking since I’m not keen on SEO. My focus is on expressing my thoughts without dealing with the shenanigans of manipulating search engines for more traffic.

If Google, Bing, and other search engines couldn’t discern which website published the original article, I would be frustrated by the prevalence of plagiarism. However, since they can, I acknowledge online plagiarism for what it is and move on.

Below is an example of a woman on LinkedIn named “Tengku Badariah” plagiarizing my post, Are You Smart Enough To Act Dumb Enough To Get Ahead. I reached out and asked her to at least link back to my post if she was going to lift 95% of my content. But she didn’t.

Tengku Badariah on Linked in plagiarized Financial Samurai and doesn't give credit

Writing Original Content As A Blogger Is Hard

Supposedly, over 90,000 articles are published online every day. If each article averages 800 words, that’s 72 million new words daily. With so much volume, there’s likely some overlap of words, hence the appropriate use of the words “duplicative content.”

Blogging requires writing consistent and opinionated content, a challenge leading many bloggers to quit within a year. Those who persist may hire freelance writers to generate traffic and revenue. However, this type of writing is generally soulless, strategically written for search engines versus humans.

My aim is to produce original content on Financial Samurai, facilitated by writing about personal experiences. Since I’m unique, my experiences are distinct. For instance, the tiff I had with my wife on the first day of 2024 is exclusive to me.

Numerous personal finance topics have been discussed extensively. When I write about such topics, I credit appropriately and provide my perspective.

Take the 4% Rule and the safe withdrawal rate for retirement, for example. I credited Bill Bengen for originating the 4% Rule in the 1990s. Subsequently, I introduced my perspective, contending that the 4% Rule is outdated, sparking a 380+ comment response.

Creating Original Concepts And Ideas On Financial Samurai

If you’ve read Financial Samurai over the years, you know I’ve continuously come up with unique concepts such as:

I generate these original ideas across various categories by consistently contemplating solutions to common financial dilemmas. Through personal trial and error, I share my opinions with the world. Occasionally, some ideas are built upon existing research, and in such cases, I credit the original source appropriately.

Out of the 2,300+ articles I’ve written since 2009, there are likely incidences of “lazy citation” or “duplicative content.” But I don’t think there are examples of plagiarism.

Unlike writing an academic paper reviewed by only a few people in a closed setting, blogging is for the world to see. Hence, plagiarism of an idea would be too risky.

Quotations Matter When Writing An Article

Again, I initially thought that the absence of quotations by Claudine Gay didn’t significantly impact the context, given she usually sourced the person at the end of her work.

However, after considering the example of her acknowledgments plagiarism and reflecting more deeply on my own writing on Financial Samurai, I now realize the lack of using quotations for someone else’s words is almost always inappropriate.

If I fail to use quotations when copying a passage, you, the reader, might be misled into believing that I authored the passage. This could be viewed as a deceptive practice on my part. Nevertheless, it’s also plausible that the absence of quotations could be seen as a mere oversight by any writer.

Gray Area Of Using Quotations To Thwart Plagiarism

In my post, Fewer Self-Made Millionaires Than You Think, I link back to the Bank of America Private Bank study and credit them appropriately.

I was originally going to just copy and past this passage below from the report into my article without quotes. It’s just a paragraph about the facts of the study, which I linked to right above. Will anybody really care if I don’t use quotes? I wouldn’t, but some would. So I decided to use some quotes anyway thanks to Claudine Gay’s public trial.

The survey conducted by Bank of America involved 1,052 participants with household investable assets exceeding $3 million, all aged 21 and above. “The aim was for the survey to be a statistically representative sample of the U.S. population meeting these criteria,” wrote the report.

The above example is very similar to the many plagiarism examples others have accused Claudine Gay of conducting. I feel the above example is no big deal if quotations weren’t used given I cited the BoA study. What do you believe?

Now if I claimed I conducted the survey, that would be a completely different story. I’m not aware of incidences where Claudine Gay claimed an original idea as her own in her papers.

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Thoughts On Plagiarism As An Author

Finally, I have published two bestselling books:

Both are original works that required a significant amount of creativity and time to write. There are numerous books addressing topics like securing a job, advancing in one’s career, and increasing earnings. However, I am not aware of any comprehensive book guiding individuals on how to exit a job they dislike while having financial security.

Similarly, there is an abundance of personal finance books available. Creating a unique personal finance book that encourages readers to approach life’s major decisions with a probability mindset was a noteworthy achievement.

Both books were made possible by drawing from my unique lived experiences.

Oddly, More Forgiving As An Author

If someone were to plagiarize the words in my book, chances are I wouldn’t be aware of it. And since I wouldn’t know, I wouldn’t be bothered. However, discovering that someone had plagiarized my work might actually make me feel honored that my work was read in the first place! Kind of weird, right?

Imitation is considered one of the sincerest forms of flattery. Moreover, every author simply desires to be read. To then be read and then copied. Wow! The plagiarizer must have really loved my work.

If I found out someone were to take my idea and claim it as their own, I would still be disappointed in them. Nevertheless, since my books are copyrighted in the Library of Congress with a time stamp indicating their release, it’s straightforward to prove I am the original author. Consequently, if things escalated, the plagiarizer would have to acknowledge my credit.

Try Not To Plagiarize Intentionally

Intent is the key word for deciding whether someone plagiarized or used “duplicative content.”

Given the vast output of writing, music, and art worldwide every day, overlaps are inevitable. For instance, playing the guitar often involves using the same three or four chord progression to produce a myriad of sounds, and in the realm of drums or electronic music, familiar beats are frequently reused.

Accidental plagiarism is a reality in such a creative landscape. The crucial distinction lies in whether one intentionally steals someone’s work and presents it as their own for advancement. When in doubt, giving credit to those who have influenced your work is the right thing. If uncertainty persists, seeking permission before creating is a prudent step.

If you suspect your work has been plagiarized and you want due credit, don’t hesitate to stand up for yourself. Recognition for your contributions is rightfully yours.

For instance, I commenced writing about early retirement from banking and achieving financial independence in 2009, contributing to the early days of the modern FIRE movement. Despite being a pioneer, my lower profile and minority status means I don’t receive much credit. Nevertheless, I continue to assert my stance when relevant.

Keep On Writing Your Truth

Claudine Gay’s public conviction is a good reminder that writing your own words matter. The higher your status in society, the more you will be scrutinized. It’s just the way it has always been.

Whether Claudine Gay intentionally or unintentionally copied other people’s writing with attribution can only be known by her. However, what’s important is holding senior university officials to the same standards required by its students. All anybody really wants is to be treated fairly.

Let’s hope we all learn from this situation and become better communicators as a result.

Finally, if you have plagiarized Financial Samurai before, I forgive you. Please just add some quotes and a link back to this site or the relevant post where you lifted my work. And if I somehow copied your work, let me know. I’ll gladly link back or quote you.

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Reader Questions

What are your thoughts on the plagiarism accusations laid upon Claudine Gay? Did she plagiarize or not? Is plagiarism more ubiquitous in academia than we realize? What is considered duplicative content or lazy citations? Why are standards seemingly different for university presidents versus the standards for its students? Are non-writers more easy to criticize writers because they don’t know how hard it is to regularly write deep bodies of work?

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