Avoiding Plagiarism

The best way to avoid plagiarism is to understand what it is. Then take steps to avoid committing either accidental or intentional plagiarism. Before we define plagiarism, however, there are three other terms that we need to define—quotation, paraphrase, and summary.

Quotation: A quotation must use the exact words of the source. If the quotation is relatively short (usually fewer than 3 lines or 40 words), those words must be enclosed in quotation marks. For instance,

  • As Steven Strang points out, “Contrary to some popular notions, most writers do not have full-blown ideas popping out of their heads like Athena” (48).
  • Notice that the quotation is introduced (“As Steven Strang points out”), that the exact words are enclosed in quotation marks, and that the page number is given (using, in this case, the MLA style).
  • At the end of the paper, there would be a bibliographical entry that would give the author, the title of the source, the publisher, date of publication, etc.)

Longer quotations are given in block quotations (see the quotations from Ed White and john Edlund later on in this entry).

Paraphrase: To paraphrase is to put the ideas in a passage into our own words, usually following the order in which the ideas were presented in the original. All major ideas are included. Usually a paraphrase is a bit shorter than the original, but when terms or concepts have to be defined, a paraphrase might actually be longer. Any paraphrase requires the same kind of citation as an exact quotation.

There are only three good reasons for paraphrasing:

  1. Translating technical material into simpler language for a lay audience
  2. Paraphrasing because a professor has explicitly requested that you do so
  3. “Translating” a poem into simpler language so that we can understand where the ambiguities lie (and this type of paraphrase rarely makes it into our papers)

Summary: A summary puts the major idea(s) of a passage into our own words and significantly shortens it. Once again, you must attribute the ideas to the original source.

What is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is the use of someone else’s ideas or language without acknowledging that they were not created by you. This definition applies to ideas, words and unusual structures regardless of where you find them—in a book, on a webpage, in an email. Whenever you include another person’s information or wording in a document, you must acknowledge the source and include a citation that will tell your readers where you obtained it—otherwise you are guilty of plagiarism.

Plagiarism is sometimes seen as intellectual theft–plagiarism.

Accidental Plagiarism

Accidental plagiarism usually occurs because we do not understand the cultural conventions of academic writing and citation. In most western countries, and certainly in the United States, there is a very real sense that writers own their ideas and the words they use to express those ideas. As John R. Edlund explains in “What Is ‘Plagiarism’ and Why Do People Do It?”:
There are two important factors that must be understood in order to understand American concepts of plagiarism. First, in the English-speaking world, people believe that ideas and written expressions of ideas can be owned. When an author writes down a particular set of words and phrases expressing a specific idea, this author in effect owns those words and that idea. Therefore to use these words without giving the author credit is to steal them. This is very different, for example, from the Chinese idea that words and ideas belong to the culture and the society and should be shared by all individuals (Myers 11). Second, Americans believe that writing is a visible, concrete demonstration of a writer’s knowledge, insight, and academic skill. Thus, to represent another person’s writing as your own is to misrepresent your own accomplishments. This is a type of fraud or deception. [Italics and boldface added] www.calstatela.edu/library/research/IL10.htm (17 Sep. 2007).

Cultural Confusion: In other words, there are many cultural differences in the way people use the ideas and language of others. In the United States, plagiarism is a serious offense. So, in spite of what your own home culture says and feels about the use of others’ ideas, the old advice—”when in Rome, do as the Romans do”—applies to the use of sources—”when in the United States (and several other western countries), cite sources.”

And if you are in doubt, always ask your professor, your TAS, or the lecturers in the Writing and Communication Center for guidance.

Difficult Concepts: In addition to cultural confusion, at times we slide into plagiarism when we are dealing with concepts that we simply do not understand, and it seems that the best way to convey those ideas to our readers is simply to use the words of the original author. If we quote those words and cite the source, we have taken a significant step in avoiding plagiarism. But, unless we actively engage with the ideas themselves (e.g., paraphrasing them in our own words after the quotation, summarizing them, or, better still, arguing or supporting them with our own ideas and evidence), we have not successfully mastered those ideas (but at least we have not committed plagiarism).

Botched Paraphrasing: Paraphrasing is the process of turning a source passage into our own words. It is another way that we can unintentionally slip into plagiarism because we end up using large chunks of phrasing from the original or using the ideas without proper citation.

In any event, even if the plagiarism is unintentional, the consequences can still be very painful.

Consequences of Plagiarizing

Plagiarism in the academic world can lead to everything from failure for the course to expulsion from the college or university.

Plagiarism in the professional world can lead to, at the very least, profound embarrassment and loss of reputation and, often, to loss of employment. Famous cases of plagiarism include the historian Stephen Ambrose (accusations about six of his books have been made, most famously about The Wild Blue) and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin (who ended up asking the publisher to destroy all unsold copies of The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys). Such plagiarism is often accidental, but its consequences are the same as for intentional plagiarism.

Avoid Plagiarizing by Citing Sources

There are five basic rules regarding the use of information in professional and in academic writing:

  1. If you use the language of your source, you must quote it exactly, enclose it in quotation marks, and cite the source.
  2. If you use ideas or information that are not common knowledge, you must cite the source.
  3. If you didn’t invent it, cite the source.
  4. Unless your professor explicitly tells you to paraphrase, don’t paraphrase.
  5. When in doubt, cite the source. Doing so can only enhance your readers sense of your honesty.

Reasons to Avoid Intentional Plagiarism

There are numerous reasons why people plagiarize (e.g., not having enough time to think about and write the paper, wanting to get a better grade, feeling that the course is irrelevant to their career plans and hence not worth their time or effort, insecurity about their own writing ability, struggles with a second language).

But there are better reasons for not plagiarizing.

  1. If you do have writing problems, identifying them early will give you plenty of opportunity to improve your skills (e.g., working closely with the lecturers in the Writing and Communication Center).
  2. You will engage with the ideas and thus deepen your own critical thinking and writing skills.
  3. You will add authority to what you write by citing sources.
  4. You will learn to question all ideas. Simply using the ideas of others prevents us from questioning or judging ideas, and this approach can lead to a willingness to accept ideas without question (a profoundly dangerous thing to do in any profession or society).
  5. Without struggling to understand, interpret, and argue with ideas, your own ideas never develop fully, and you will tend to see issues superficially (again, a profoundly dangerous thing in any profession and in any society).
  6. You will learn to voice your own ideas.
  7. You will avoid the penalties of plagiarism if you get caught.

Advantages to Citing Sources

  1. You allow your readers to locate the sources of your information in case they want to pursue it in their own research. After all, in the academic and professional worlds, your research becomes part of the ongoing intellectual conversation about ideas. We all stand on the shoulders of earlier researchers, and we all hope that others will stand upon our shoulders in the future.
    1. An obvious illustration of this standing-on-the-shoulders-of-others is found in technical and scientific writing. Procedures and methods sections of technical and scientific articles and laboratory reports provide readers with information sufficient to replicate both the method and data described in the document. That information is provided not only so that our results can be verified but also so that others might refine our methods or build upon them to make even more discoveries.
    2. For documents in any field, quotations provide evidence for our assertions and ideas for us to argue against. Citations show our willingness to have our interpretations of those other works verified.
    3. For longer papers in other fields, literature reviews provide the intellectual context for understanding our contribution to that ongoing conversation about ideas.
  2. Your ethos (your credibility) is profoundly enhanced when you cite your sources. Doing so proves that you are well informed about the topic and that your work can be trusted to be accurate. Doing so also proves that you are honest.
  3. As pointed out by scholar Ed White,

“Every writer has his or her own intellectual identity, though most ideas inevitably come from outside sources. A responsible use of sources recognizes that identity and distinguishes clearly between what you think and what the sources think. It is no sin to accept another person’s idea…. But you must interpose yourself between the sources and your writing, thus making other peoples’ ideas your own through a process of critical scrutiny.”—Ed White and Lynn Bloom (qtd. in an email from Ed White, citing the book he and Bloom edited, Inquiry, Prentice Hall, 1993, p. 445).

Types of Plagiarism

  1. Turning in someone else’s work as your own—e.g., a friend’s paper, a paper from a fraternity collection, a paper copied from the Web, or a paper purchased from one of those online paper mills.
    1. It’s crucial to remember that having permission to use something or having purchased something does not make it your creation.
    2. For instance, I own my car. I bought it and it is now fully paid for. But I would be lying if I said I made my car. The same is true for a paper purchased or borrowed from someone.
  2. Creating the patch-quilt or “pastiche” paper—cobbling together paragraphs and ideas taken from different sources.
    1. Although “research” was required to find the paragraphs and ideas, our active engagement with those ideas is missing
    2. If sources are cited, then what we have is “research notes” rather than our own paper.
    3. If the sources are not cited, then plagiarism and fraud are in the writer’s claim that the words, phrasings, and ideas are his/her own.
    4. Ed White’s quotation above explains the difference between a research paper and a patch-quilt paper (although he does not use those terms).