How not to steal other people’s ideas

All books rest on other people’s ideas. There is no such thing as completely original content. Your job is to build on those ideas, not to hide where you got them.

As an author, you have these responsibilities:

  1. Even if you think an idea is original with you, search for it. It’s your job to see if anyone else is talking about it.
  2. Distinguish what is new. Decide where the ideas of others end and where your idea begins.
  3. Cite the ideas of others on which your idea is built. Describe and give credit.
  4. If possible, interview the creator of the original idea and quote them.

Citing the ideas of others makes your work stronger, not weaker. You didn’t invent Net Promoter Score, Systems Thinking, or Technographics. Pretending you did — or that the ideas are just there for the taking, stripped of information about their creators — is not only dishonest. It makes others wonder about the quality of your own ideas.

Your original contribution may be to better describe how to implement the idea, how to make it stronger, how to use it in a specific context, or how to measure it. You may be combining others’ ideas in a new say, or using them as an analogy. You may even be explaining why someone else’s original idea is wrong. Those are all worthy contributions, but they exist because they build on what someone else did.

In all of those cases, your work will be stronger if you describe clearly what belongs to you and what belongs to others.

Is failing to cite others’ ideas plagiarism?

Strictly speaking, plagiarism is stealing the exact expression of others’ ideas. If you quote material without giving credit, you are guilty of plagiarism.

If you only steal ideas, not words, it may not be as easy to detect. But it’s still intellectually dishonest.

If you have nothing new to say, why bother writing at all?

If you have something new to add, why not give credit? Your fellow researchers will respect you. And your readers and clients will appreciate knowing that you’re not a thief.

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One Comment

  1. Your post really hit home with me, Josh.

    One of the biggest limitations of my first book is its lack of external sources and references. I didn’t plagiarize, but I should have done more research. Rather than be embarrassed at my omission, I’m proud of the fact that my writing has evolved for the better. In my latest, there are more than 300 endnotes.