I just heard from a client who's struggling to find freelancers who don't plagiarize and who do cite the most recent data.

My first response was a typical "are you kidding me?!" But I held my tongue.

Look, if you find yourself having to remind writers about this, you may be working with the wrong writers.

MAY because, yes, some of the people doing this are lazy, but some others may not be clear on the rules and how to comply with them.

Some content producers do phone it in

If you know one of your content partners is phoning it in -- because it happens repeatedly -- feel free to jettison them. If they have a contract, it's probably a fireable offense. Every contract I've ever signed has a section or two about plagiarism and journalistic standards -- and explicitly notes that not meeting those is a breach of the contract. (Pro tip here: if you're asking people to sign contracts and you've never read it yourself, that's a disservice to everyone. I'm always surprised that I know their contract better than my clients do.) Should you want (or think you need) to give transgressors a second chance, that's cool. But in that case it's squarely on you to bird-dog their copy to make sure they're not slipping back into old habits. That doesn't seem like the best use of your time. Why not just hire content partners who you don't have to worry about? That'd be a time- and money-saver and keep you out of trouble with the lawyers.

Quick tip for contractors, freelancers and agency folks: If you or your team is having trouble with plagiarism, copyright and research citations, invest in coaching or training!

Some content producers just need some coaching

All that said, it's also important to acknowledge the possibility that your partner wasn't taught or drilled on these practices. Do get derailed by why that's the case -- focus on fixing it. If you want to keep working with the writer -- because they possess domain expertise or they have seniority or you're already short-handed -- you now have an opportunity to coach them on how to meet your expectations. Here's how you could do that:

  1. Review what plagiarism is, how copyright and fair-use work and -- crucially -- why following these rules are important to your business and theirs. And if YOU don't know, now's a great time to model the behavior and learn.
  2. Develop some short exercises to practice summarizing, paraphrasing and re-writing with proper attribution as needed. This, of course, may also entail guidance on "when it's needed".
  3. Explain why recent data is important (i.e., trust, credibility and responsibility to the reader) and outline criteria for older but significant studies. For example: We use research from the last two calendar years and nothing more than 5 years old unless it's truly a landmark study (and then we note it as such). In the wake of major events, like COVID or the Great Recession, the window might be smaller.
  4. Establish a standard for citing sources and make sure your reviewers know it, too. For us, that means showing your work. When we're backgrounding -- not even writing yet -- we check the terms of use for every source and include them in the source materials. We try to steer clear of fair use citations in favor of data that's not copyright protected against commercial use (like government data and certain Creative Commons licenses). The terms of use accompany each citation in the final doc, too, so our clients' legal teams can review and make a final determination. And we include a disclaimer on every assignment stating that we checked but we're not attorneys, so your legal team has the final say.

Of course, you could also hire a writing coach to work with them while you get on with your day job.

Does this feel like overkill? It may be. I know our internal standards are often far stricter than our clients. But it's my job as CEO to protect the agency from legal hazards. But investing in training my team and our partners to meet these standards makes sense to me -- and is a lot less work-intensive and costly than losing an account or getting sued.

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