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This blog is about management accounting, but as its main users are students and academics, a post discussing plagiarism – an increasingly important issue in academia – is most appropriate.

By now, in late July 2016, you have already probably guessed what motivated this post: the plagiarism issue around Melania Trump, due to using, in a major political event, several sentences that Michelle Obama had used back in 2008 (see a comparison).

One of the questions that immediately struck me at the time was “How was this possible?! Surely, these speeches are, at least, extensively reviewed by professional staff – indeed, most probably written by such people”. Soon afterwards, another news addressed my puzzle: a staff writer working at the Trump Organization issued a statement taking the blame. She argued that the inclusion of those sentences in the final speech was an involuntary error, as those passages from Michele Obama’s were initially used as ideas but ended up, involuntarily, in Melania’s final speech.

Surely more has been (and will be) written on this story, but let’s leave it here. What’s the point of mentioning it in this blog?

Every year, there are plagiarism charges against students. Indeed, against academics, against politicians, against professional writers, in the book and in the music industries (a quick google search will provide plenty of examples). Many times, plagiarism is intentional and is driven by a combination of lack of time and/or skills and/or ethics. But in other times, plagiarism may indeed be accidental. When developing a text, it is common to copy-paste other people’s sentences into our file – in a side comment, or in the main text – in order to “have it at hand” to check it later. But doing this is also risky. There is the very real risk that we forget those sentences origin and start treating them as our own. The risk is particularly high if we include it in the main text, if we fail to immediately flag it as being a copied extract, or if that reminder may easily disappear during the gradual development of the file. For example, using a different font or highlighting / underlining the passage as a reminder may be rendered useless if the entire document format is changed for some reason.

So, what’s the take away? First of all: be aware that plagiarism is not only wrong but it is also increasingly easy to be detected, including through specialised software used in the academia. Second: take steps to prevent accidental plagiarism, always making a clear separation between your work and the sentences from other people: introducing clear reminders; keeping it in side comments, out of the main text; or, best of all, keeping it in a separate file. This should keep you safe. Happy writing!