The Silmarillion Writers' Guild--An Online Community for Silmarillion Study and Fan Fiction

TheSilmarillionWriters'Guild

SWG Plagiarism Policy

Every author and group moderator hopes never to have to address the issue of plagiarism. If we need never reference this page, we would be happiest. However, plagiarism remains a reality in the world of writing, and the Internet often facilitates it. As such, to ensure fair and equal treatment of our members, we are setting forth a clear definition of and response to the problem of plagiarism.

What Is Plagiarism?

At first glance, this seems an easy question to answer: copying another author's work and passing it off as one's own. However, the line between acceptable use of another's work and plagiarism is blurry. Each group and archive may necessarily have slightly different understandings of what constitutes plagiarism. This is the standard that we will use on the Silmarillion Writers' Guild, and it will apply to all of our affiliated groups.

In general, plagiarism is the use of another's work or words without proper attribution. On SWG, we consider the following to constitute plagiarism:

Copying significant portions of unique text without proper permission, credit, or citation.

For example, the following paragraph appears in my novel Another Man's Cage. If I found the same paragraph being used unchanged in another author's story, that would be plagiarism:

I think I am dreaming when I hear the door bang open and see Atar standing there. It is not like him to enter our bedrooms unbidden. He always knocks and enters with our invitation, extending to us the same courtesy that he requires. Even more puzzling, he is angry, and I feel my insides drag with disappointment that the gift of sleep should be tainted by nightmares.

This passage contains many phrases, images, and metaphors that are used in a unique combination in my story, so seeing all of them used in the identical manner as I have used them would indicate that someone is, in all likelihood, copying my work. Now the individual phrases, images, and metaphors would not necessarily be plagiarism, on their own. For example, these uses would not be considered plagiarism of my work:

Lórien came to Finwë, who was grieving profoundly still for the loss of Míriel Þerindë. "I bring to you the gift of sleep, without nightmares," he said.

---

The door bangs open, and I see Fëanor standing there.

Why aren't these instances plagiarism? Because none of the phrases used are unique to my work. Other authors have spoken of the "gift of sleep" or doors that "bang open." Similarly, other aspects of the stories--the structure and characters, for example--indicate that each work is original, even if they have in common short phrases.

Paraphrasing significant portions of unique text without proper permission, credit, or citation.

Paraphrasing means to restate a passage with only minor changes in structure or wording. So, using the same passage as above, this would be unacceptable paraphrasing of my work:

It's like a dream when I hear the door bang open and see my father standing there. He doesn't enter our bedrooms unbidden but, extending to us the same courtesy that he requires, always knocks and enters with our invitation. I am puzzled because he seems angry, and there is a disappointed drag in my gut. Why should the gift of sleep be tainted by nightmares?

I simply copied the paragraph above, changed a few words, and moved a few phrases to different places within the sentence. Still, much of the paragraph remains identical to the original with the essential images and metaphors intact.

Again, this takes into account the length of the passage and the degree of similarity. To borrow small portions of this passage would not earn an accusation of plagiarism.

Using characters or details original to an author's story without giving credit to the author for their creation.

Many fan fiction writers, out of courtesy or obligation, put disclaimers on their work, giving credit to J.R.R. Tolkien for his work, as well as reasserting that his estate holds all rights to his stories and characters and those works derived from them. This site protects all of our authors with a similar disclaimer that appears on every page.

However, even fan fiction works can contain original characters or unique ideas and interpretations. In the instance that another author wishes to use these details, she or he should credit the author who invented them.

For example, if SilmficGoddess has created a modern-day wife for Maglor named Sally, and I wish to use Sally in my stories, I should credit SilmficGoddess for her creation, much as I credit J.R.R. Tolkien for the creation of Maglor.

While it is generally good manners to ask before using an original character or detail from another author's stories, as fan fiction writers, it would be hypocritical to require it when doubtlessly few (or any) of us have contacted the Tolkien Estate for similar permission. Nonetheless, acknowledging the creator of that character or detail is essential and required on our site.

Using another author or researcher's original ideas, interpretation, or research without proper credit or citation.

This issue arises primarily in non-fiction or research articles, which generally rely heavily on outside sources to illustrate or prove their points. It is imperative that non-fiction authors on SWG include in-text citations that correspond with a list of works cited included with the essay. The format or manner in which authors wish to do this is up to each author, but at the minimum, readers should be able to locate the sources used based on the information given in the citations and works-cited list.

The following uses must include source citations in all SWG research articles:

Commonly, in academic writing, it is assumed that information that is "common knowledge" within a particular community does not require citation. Since this is a Silmarillion community, I do not need to provide citation for the fact that Fëanor made the Silmarils, as this counts as common knowledge in this community. Likewise, saying that the North Pole is cold is common knowledge, so if I'm using this fact in an essay about the Helcaraxë, then I do not need to cite it.

But if I'm citing something from Tolkien's works that will likely be unfamiliar to some or most of the readers on SWG, I need to provide a source citation for it. If I'm discussing how Nienna used to be called Fui and passed judgment on dead Men in a hall with a roof made of bats' wings, chances are, most SWG readers will not know from where I got my information. (And it is The Book of Lost Tales I, The Coming of the Valar and the Building of Valinor, if you're curious.) Likewise, if I am discussing the molecular properties of the metals used to construct the chain Angainor used to imprison Melkor, then this is likely not common knowledge to most SWG readers. I need to provide adequate citations.

Assessing what is and is not reasonable "common knowledge" can be tricky. When in doubt, cite the source anyway. No author has ever earned a black mark on his or her reputation for using too exhaustive of citations, but more than one author has borne the same because of charges of plagiarism.

What Is Not Plagiarism?

Similarly, it is useful to state what is not plagiarism. Most of what I have seen labeled as plagiarism in the fan fiction community is actually far from it. It is good to keep in mind that the same ideas and even the same language can be constructed by authors working independently of each other. Some cynics in the fiction community claim that nothing--plot, characters, style, or language--can be original. It's all been done before.

Likely, every author's work contains some detail that is similar to a detail in another author's work. In all likelihood, the two authors have never met or read each others' stories, yet they both described walking through mud like having their feet sucked upon by a giant brown carp (for example) or both wrote stories where Maglor survived to fight in World War II. Is this plagiarism? Clearly not.

It behooves authors to remember before making an accusation of plagiarism that similarity between works is not the same thing as plagiarism. So what's the difference then? Plagiarism is intentionally taking another author's work and passing it off as one's own. How do we tell the difference? It's difficult and never 100% correct. However, large sections of identical or nearly identical text or recurring instances of the same are generally a good indicator.

The following instances are not considered plagiarism on the Silmarillion Writers' Guild.

Similar or identical plotlines.

MaglorsGirl7 posts a story about Maedhros being released from Mandos and seeking out his brother Maglor. Two weeks later, I post a story about Maedhros being released from Mandos and seeking his brother Maglor. No other details about the stories are the same. Am I a plagiarist?

No, I am not. Every story will necessarily involve plotlines that are similar--even identical--to other stories. Particularly in fan fiction, we often work with story arcs that are based on the original work. The first person to write a fan fiction based on Fingon rescuing Maedhros from Thangorodrim cannot claim that the thousands of authors to write the same plot after are plagiarists. Even the most unique plotline cannot be "owned" by a single author. As long as the writing itself is unique, other authors are free to explore the same idea.

Similar or identical themes.

Likewise, similar or identical themes cannot belong to any single author. If I write a story about how Melkor's abuse at the hands of the other Valar during the Music caused his misbehavior that follows, if one dozen other authors take on the same theme, I cannot accuse them of plagiarism.

Using original characters with credit.

Using another author's original characters is not plagiarism if credit to the character's creator is given. Just as we use Fëanor and Mandos--characters that belong to J.R.R. Tolkien--so can we use Vingarië and Bob Bombadil, characters that belong to fan fiction authors. However, just as we acknowledge that J.R.R. Tolkien's characters do not belong to us, so we must acknowledge that another author's creations do not belong to us either.

Similar or identical phrases in sparing use.

I write a story where I describe Indis's lips as "red as ripe apples." A week later, I see a story where Varda's lips are described as "red as ripe apples." Have I been plagiarized?

No. Similar language--even images and metaphors that we think are original--is likely to occur in another author's fiction. I once proudly used the "original" image of the sea looking like tinfoil in a story, thinking myself clever, and bare weeks later discovered the exact same image in a book that I'd never read before that was published before I'd started writing. Do I owe credit to the original author? Of course not, no more than authors who use clichés like "She was green with jealousy" or "He stopped dead in his tracks" owe credit to the first person to use those phrases.

What to Do If You Suspect that Your Work Has Been Plagiarized on SWG

If you suspect that your work may have been plagiarized by an SWG member on SWG, please contact a moderator immediately. The supervising moderator may be reached at moderator@silmarillionwritersguild.org.

You do not need to be a member on SWG in order to make a complaint. However, please realize that we can only exercise control over material that is posted on our site, which includes our homepage and archive at silmarillionwritersguild.org, our LiveJournal community, and our Yahoo! Discussion list. In the event that a piece of plagiarized writing is also posted on archives outside of SWG, we will only attempt to effect the removal of that work on sites under our control. You are responsible for learning the plagiarism policy of the other site(s)/archive(s), contacting and making a formal complaint against the story, and providing necessary evidence in accordance with the archive's standards. In the event that we are contacted by the moderators of another archive, we will do our best to provide them with any software or evidence collected during the process of our own inquiry into the matter, if requested to do so.

Do not try to solve the problem on your own. Always go through our moderation team. Under no circumstances should you attempt to contact or make charges against the member. SWG members who use SWG resources, including reviews, private messages, forums, the LiveJournal commenting system, or any communication features that may be offered through SWG in the future to harass, accuse, or defame another SWG member due to plagiarism allegations will face disciplinary action that might include account suspension, removal of account privileges, and account termination.

When you contact our moderators, you should be prepared to provide the following:

When you contact our moderators, you will be informed which of this information you will need to provide. In the event that you fail to provide the information requested, we can make no guarantees that we will conduct an investigation into plagiarism of your work. Depending on the lengths of the works, a plagiarism investigation takes hours of a single moderator's time, so if an author with a complaint cannot spare the few minutes to provide us the information that we need, then investigating his or her complaint becomes low priority.

Once the necessary information is received, a moderator will 1) perform a subjective comparison of the two stories and 2) perform an objective comparison of the two stories using plagiarism-detection software. Plagiarism-detection software compares two written works for strings of matching words, allowing for a certain amount of error to accommodate for paraphrasing. We use the software manufacture's recommended parameters in performing the comparison. Conclusions will be based on this investigation.

In the event that the moderator feels that evidence is mixed or uncertain, the other moderators will be consulted and additional resources may be sought.

If it is determined that a piece includes plagiarized material, it will be immediately removed from the site, and the author will receive a "strike" in the three-strike system. In special cases, the SWG moderators reserve the right to modify this.

If it is determined that a piece does not contain plagiarized material, the piece will remain on the site and no action will be taken against the author. Stories will not be removed or flagged in any way until the veracity of an accusation is determined. Individuals making a plagiarism complaint should understand that our moderators investigate these very thoroughly in the interest of fairness to both authors and that an investigation may take several days to complete.

A plagiarism accusation has the potential to injure both authors involved, sometimes irreparably. The hurt and anger that accompanies having one's work stolen is understandable. Likewise, having an original work wrongly labeled as "plagiarized" can be equally painful to the accused person as well as irrevocably damaging to his or her reputation as an author. As such, we are careful and thorough in our decisions and seek to minimize damages to both parties until guilt is determined.

If we decide that an individual's claim of plagiarism is not justified, we will do our best to work with that author to allow him or her to understand how we arrived at our decision. We will share the results of text-comparison software, if requested. The opinions of additional moderators or a neutral third party may be requested by the author, and we will do our best to provide this, within reason.

In the event that we decide against a charge of plagiarism, the complainant is not, under any circumstances, to use the SWG sites or resources to accuse, harass, or defame the accused author. It is common, when a site will not remove a "plagiarized" work, for individuals to rally their friends to leave negative and accusatory reviews on that story. In the event that this occurs, action will be taken against the individuals leaving such reviews as well as the accusing author, if there can be found proof that she or he incited such action. The damaging reviews will be removed at the request of the accused author.

Finally, we ask people to understand the direness of a plagiarism accusation before making such a charge against another author. Such an accusation carries the power to place a black mark indefinitely not only against an individual work but against a person's ethics and integrity as an author. Using plagiarism accusations to seek retribution or "stir up drama" is highly inappropriate, and we will take action against any individuals who make a habit of doing so.

If you have concerns, however, we ask you to bring them to us, even if you stop short of making an actual accusation. It takes only a few minutes to run two stories through plagiarism-detection software, and we are happy to do so, if you have doubts as to the originality of a work. You are welcome to use the results to help you with the decision to make a formal complaint against that author. Please bring any questions or concerns to our moderators at moderator@silmarillionwritersguild.org. As always, we are happy to help.

How to Avoid an Accusation of Plagiarism

Being wrongly accused of plagiarism is an author's nightmare. Authors work hard on their writing, and to have implied that writing was stolen rather than the result of personal effort is devastating. Likewise, an accusation of plagiarism is an insult to an author's integrity and could negatively color readers' responses to his or her work indefinitely.

As such, along with knowing how to recognize plagiarism, it is to every author's advantage to understand how to avoid it. Most of us, at some point, will want or need to use another author's work as part of our own. It is not plagiarism to use another author's work. It is plagiarism to claim or appear to claim that that work is your own.

So what steps can authors take when they wish to use another author's work, whether fiction or non-fiction?

  1. Ask first. Whenever possible, ask the original author before using original characters or ideas from his or her fiction. Even if what you are using is something that you technically have the right to use, it shows respect for the original author if you ask first and let the author know that she or he has a choice in how the original work is used. And, in my experience, the majority of Tolkien authors are more than happy to allow another author to use characters or ideas from their stories.

    Non-fiction presents a bit of a different issue. Non-fiction writers cite research by other authors all of the time, and asking permission is not only tedious but somewhat contrary to the point of writing research articles in the first place. If you are citing another's research for a non-fiction piece, asking permission is not necessary. Clear citation of your sources, however, is essential.
  2. Credit. Most importantly, always give credit to the original author for the use of his or her work. Even if the author insists that credit is not necessary, you are using something that she or he spent time and effort on creating. It is a minimal show of respect to the original author to acknowledge his or her part in creating your story or research article.

    For fiction, credit usually takes the form of an author's note at the beginning or end of the story, in a place where it can be clearly seen by readers. In non-fiction writing, credit requires clear and complete citations every time you reference another author's work. The citations should be in-text and should point to a works-cited list. Your works-cited list should include enough information that a reader can find the original author's work, whether book, magazine, website, or something else entirely. Entire books have been written on how to properly cite various sources and using one of these to guide you is a great idea.
  3. Better Too Much Credit Than Too Little. If you're uncertain whether or not you should credit or cite another author for his or her contribution to your writing, then credit the author anyway. It is better to use too much or unnecessary credit than to find yourself facing a plagiarism accusation.
  4. Avoid Paraphrasing. When writing non-fiction pieces and using another author's research or interpretation, always rewrite the ideas in your own words. If there is something unique to the original author's writing that you wish to capture, directly quote the source.

    Paraphrasing is dangerous ground in non-fiction. Even if you provide proper citations, many readers will understand this as giving credit for the ideas and not the writing itself. If you feel that you cannot express the idea better than the original author, again, quote him or her directly with proper credit given. If half of your article ends up as quotes, then you know that you need to strive harder to make the writing your own. Remember that readers want to hear what you have to say. They don't want to read a collection of what a dozen other authors have to say with your name on it.

It is our hope that we never have to use the definitions and policies in this document. Unfortunately, in all likelihood, we will. As always we welcome correspondence should you have any questions or concerns. Our moderators may be reached at moderator@silmarillionwritersguild.org.