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Avoiding Plagiarism

The best way to avoid plagiarism is to understand what it is. Then we must avoid committing either accidental or intentional plagiarism. Before defining plagiarism, however, we define three other terms—quotation, paraphrase, and summary.

Quotation: A quotation must use the exact words of the source or ellipses if we omit any. If the quotation is relatively short (e.g., 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”), the exact words are enclosed in quotation marks, and the page number appears (here, using the MLA style).
  • The end of the paper would include a bibliographical entry giving the author, the title of the source, the publisher, date of publication, etc.)

Longer quotations appear in block form (see the quotations from Ed White and John Edlund later in this entry).

Paraphrase: To paraphrase is to put the ideas in a passage into our own words, usually following the order of the ideas in the original. All major ideas are included. A paraphrase is often shorter than the original; a paraphrase that defines terms or concepts might actually be longer. Any paraphrase requires the same kind of citation as an exact quotation.

Only three good reasons for paraphrasing exist:

  1. Translating technical material into simpler language for a lay audience
  2. Paraphrasing because a professor has explicitly requested that we 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, we 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 we did not create them. This definition applies to ideas, words and unusual structures regardless of where we find them — in a book, on a webpage, in an email. Whenever we include another person’s information or wording in a document, we must acknowledge the source and include a citation that will tell your readers where we obtained it — otherwise we 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, many cultural differences occur 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.”

If you are in doubt, always ask a professor, a TA, or the lecturers in the Writing and Communication Center for guidance.

Difficult Concepts: In addition to cultural confusion, we might slide into plagiarism when we discuss concepts that we do not understand, and using the author’s words seems the best way to convey those ideas to our readers. If we quote those words and cite the source, we take a key step to avoid plagiarism. Unless we actively engage with the ideas themselves (e.g., paraphrase them in our own words after the quotation, summarize them, or, better still, argue or support them with our own ideas and evidence), we have not fully assimilated the ideas (but at least we have not plagiarized).

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 if we use phrasing from the original or use 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, at the very least, to 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 may be accidental, but its consequences are the same as for intentional plagiarism.

Avoid Plagiarizing by Citing Sources

Five basic rules exist regarding the use of information in professional and in academic writing:

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

Reasons to Avoid Intentional Plagiarism

People may be tempted to plagiarize for several reasons (e.g., lacking time to think about and write the paper, wanting to get a better grade, feeling a course is irrelevant to their career plans and hence not worth their time or effort, insecurity about our writing ability, struggles with a second language).

But there are better reasons for not plagiarizing.

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

Advantages to Citing Sources

  • An obvious illustration of this standing-on-others’-shoulders occurs 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 so that our results can be verified but so that others might refine our methods or build upon them to make even more discoveries.
  • 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.
  • For longer papers in other fields, literature reviews provide the intellectual context for understanding our contribution to that ongoing conversation about ideas.
  • Our ethos (your credibility) is profoundly enhanced when we cite your sources. Citing sources proves that we are well informed about the topic and that our work can be trusted to be accurate. Citing sourcesalso proves that we are honest.
  • 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

  • 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 one purchased online .
    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 purchased or borrowed paper
  • Creating the patch-quilt or “pastiche” paper—cobbling together paragraphs and ideas taken from different sources.
    1. Although we “researched” to find the paragraphs and ideas, we did not actively engage with those ideas
    2. If swe cite sources, then we have “research notes” rather than our own paper.
    3. If we do not cite sources, then plagiarism and fraud exist in our claim that the words, phrasings, and ideas are our 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).