Plagiarism: What Is It? How Do I Avoid It?

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Plagiarism is an academic or professional misrepresentation, in which a writer takes credit for someone else’s ideas.

Avoid plagiarism by

  • submitting your own work
  • giving proper credit to other people whose words and/or ideas appear in your work
  • recognizing that direct quotation (with citation) and paraphrase (with citation) are both acceptable ways to use outside material.

Avoid the panic that makes cheating look so attractive by

  • starting early (plan 2-3 hours of homework for each hour of class)
  • keeping on track (with brainstorming, drafting, workshop, and revision assignments)
  • seeking out help (from the professor, Writing Center, tutors)
Legitimate universities respond seriously to any sign that a student — through dishonesty, carelessness, or lack of knowledge– has compromised his or her academic integrity. Procedures vary from school to school, but in general,

  • A student may be permitted to resubmit an assignment, and/or may be given a grade penalty ranging from a few points on the assignment to failure of the course.
  • Independent of any action from the professor, the administration may choose to suspend or expel the student (especially in the case of multiple offenses).

In the real world, plagiarism (and/or falsifying or misrepresenting sources) will get you fired, even if you “didn’t mean to do it.”

What Is Plagiarism? What Is Not Plagiarism?

  • When a TV reporter records an item that was written by a different reporter (and does not credit the original source), that’s plagiarism. (A CBS producer was fired after Katie Couric recorded an item that originally appeared in the New York Times.)
  • When a Harvard-bound valedictorian re-uses long passages from presidential speeches, without identifying the source, that’s plagiarism. (In 2003, Blair Hornstine found her admission to Harvard rescinded when this honesty issue came to light.)
  • When a student re-uses a statement of a widely-known fact, such as “Pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter,” that’s not plagiarism. (It’s not original, or expressive, but depending on the assignment, that might not be an issue… ask your professor.)
  • Some instructors may define plagiarism as re-using more than three consecutive words without citing the source. I personally don’t find that definition useful… here’s why:
    • What if you are writing about “The United States of America”?  That’s five words, but that’s not plagiarism.  (A definition based on word counts misses the point, since honest scholarship involves acknowledging the source of other people’s ideas, not just their exact words.)
    • What about if you quote song lyrics, or advertising slogans, or pop-culture catchphrases, or grab a photo from the internet for your PowerPoint presentation, without citing your source? Your professor may or may not recognize the reference, so it’s a good idea to get into the habit of citing. (Good writers are aware of the needs of their audiences, and academic audiences require thorough and complete citations.)

Can I Use Other People’s Ideas in My Own Work?

Yes! You just have to make it clear to your reader where exactly you got each idea (or phrase, or sentence, or paragraph) that you didn’t create yourself.

Citing sources accurately and fairly is a fundamental skill of critical thinking.

Only one person, on one occasion, has composed (from scratch) these exact words:

A photographer can create different impressions of the same scene by including some elements in the frame and omitting others, by changing lenses, or by tweaking the color and tone of the image in the darkroom

Because I use these words in my document, I have the moral obligation to identify the writer, and to give the reader all the information he or she needs in order to locate the full original, which was “I Was There. Just Ask Photoshop,” by Alex Williams, published in the New York Times, 15 Aug 2008.

If your name is on the submission, you are claiming all the ideas in it, unless you explicitly state that a certain stretch of words, or sentences, or ideas are really the creative work of somebody else.

On the other hand, there are only so many ways you can say a basic, well-known fact like “earth is the third planet from the sun,” or a widely-held opinion like “baseball is America’s pastime.”  If you rely heavily on those kinds of stock phrases, your professors and editors might be concerned that your writing lacks a personal voice or an original perspective, but those are not matters of academic integrity.

Turnitin.com has accused me of plagiarizing! What do I do?

  • Actually, Turnitin.com simply reports what percentage of your work it has never seen before.  Turnitin.com is not a judge; it is simply one of many tools that instructors can use when we try to gauge whether students are learning the material. Your instructors will never act on the Turnitin.com report without carefully investigating.
  • Recently I had a student who was so proud of her idea for a paper that she put it on her blog, and invited her peers to give her feedback. Turnitin.com flagged her full paper as “unoriginal” because it had noticed those parts that first appeared on her blog. (The student was never at any risk of being punished, because I know how to interpret Turnitin.com’s feedback, and could clearly see that she was the author of the material Turnitin.com treated as the source.)
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