advice you can use — short and to the point — every Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday

Wednesday, September 16th, 2020 technology  research  practice

A Research Tip

  • Research & Writing

Long, long ago, when the interweb was new and I was an articling student, I had to write a conference paper for a partner — one of those pieces that ended up with his name as author and mine in a footnote.

I was doing research in the firm’s library and among my sources were conference papers by other lawyers. At one point, I said to myself, ‘Oh, wait — I’ve read this one before, haven’t I?’ When I checked the pile of binders on the table, I realised I had read the paper before — but it was ostensibly by a different author at a different firm from the one whose work I had just looked at.

I realised at once what had happened. Another stressed-out articling student with a looming deadline had just copied an earlier paper, holus bolus, and slapped the instructing lawyer’s name on it. Both papers dated from the same year, so which was the original and which the plagiary? There was no way to tell, so I cited both in my footnote and left readers to draw their own conclusions.

For a generation of articling students who have never known a world without the internet, and whose notions of copyright are perhaps a bit flexible, the opportunities for copying others’ work are legion. And deadlines from lawyers are no less pressing. How embarrassing it would be to have someone from another firm call you up and point out that your blog post or conference paper is in fact something she wrote last year, repackaged as your original work.

When I’m marking law school assignments, if a phrase sounds too polished or too technical to be the work of a 2L, I run the excerpt (in quotation marks) in the search box for legal blogs at legalresearchandwriting.ca or slaw.ca, and in Google. There are also some tools — some of them free — to be found by searching for ‘plagiarism checker’ on Google. So, see what your students have been up to…

Better yet, write your own original content.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

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