On Plagiarism: For Students Everywhere

Posted: August 15, 2007 in Lecturer Paper

Preface: Even established scholars get into trouble from time to time when they fail to acknowledge their sources or fail to use quotation marks around words taken from materials they have read. The word “plagiarism” can apply to a paper even if a student dutifully footnotes every paragraph lifted from sources without the use of quotation marks. The word itself is of Latin origin and it has to do with “kidnapping.” The worst case scenario is when a person puts his or her name on a piece of writing written entirely by someone else and does this without the permission of the writer of the original with the sole purpose of passing the piece on to the unsuspecing reader as his or her own.

The case in the wonderful movie Finding Forrester is unique. There the student uses the words of a famous writer with the writer’s permission. There the issue is an egotistical teacher’s prejudice against a black student from the “slums.” The teacher in question can’t believe that such a student could write so well, so when he finds that the student in question has “lifted” certain words from a published article (the student is actually not really aware of the fact that the article in question has been published), the teacher tries to destroy the student’s career at the fine school that he is attending on a scholarship. Justice triumphs in the movie. May it always triumph in real life as well. But – if you are a student – don’t count on getting away with someone else’s words, especially not if you are trying to cheat by using them.

USING AND ABUSING SOURCES

Acknowledge your sources: That’s really the heart of the matter. You may use whatever sources you want. You may use books, essays, articles. You may use learned journals, magazines, newspapers. You may use the Internet. Novels, stories, drama, poetry. It doesn’t matter what you use. You are allowed to use anything and everything, so long as you acknowledge the fact! Nevertheless, here’s a general breakdown of the types of use (rather than abuse) of sources:

Quoting: You may quote all you want. Papers about literature usually have lots of quotations in them. Historians like to paraphrase. Sociologists and psychologists like to use lots of references which they tend to briefly summarize. When writing a paper in a given field it behooves you to use the format and standards customary in a given field, such as the MLA Style Manual or the Chicago Manual of Style (in literature) or the APA style in most of the social sciences.

The main thing about quoting is not to misrepresent the author. That is, don’t quote only those parts of his/her work that make him/her “look bad.” In everyday parlance, don’t take things out of context. (Of course, strictly speaking, all quotations are lifted out of their original context, but this still can be done in an honest way, in a way that indicates what the original context is.) The point is that when you are fair to your source even if you disagree with it, you are bound to come off looking better than if you had not played fair.

Paraphrasing: This means to say the same thing in other words. In other words, you repeat the point(s) made by an author using your own words. If the words used by the author are too special in some sense to be “paraphrased,” then (by all means) quote them. In a paraphrase it is possible to incorporate bits and pieces of someone else’s writing into your own, but those bits and pieces need to be enclosed by quotation marks.

The thing about paraphrasing (and the thing that makes it difficult) is that you must understand the point(s) made by the author. Otherwise you simply cannot properly represent his/her meaning with any degree of accuracy. (If you can spare the time, you might want to read my essay on “The Art of Reading” elsewhere on this Web site.) A paraphrase is usually practically as long as the original. That’s what distinguishes it from:

Summarizing: This also means to say the same thing but in much fewer words. It is possible to sum up the thesis of a whole book in a sentence or two. A brief summary doesn’t even have to be documented, provided that you acknowledge what you are doing by mentioning the book in question (e.g., John Doe in his You Name It argues that people who are weird give weird names to their children). Obviously summaries can range from brief re-statements of theses to rather detailed analyses. One big mistake a student can make in writing a “research paper” chock-full of “innocent” or “unintended” plagiarism (which is plagiarism nevertheless), is to follow a single source too slavishly and to use much of the language of the original too frequently without the use of quotation marks.

Influence and Common Knowledge also go into the writing of papers. You may be influenced by someone else’s thoughts and/or words without being conscious of the fact. This happens to all of us. If you do remember that you have read something somewhere you are about to put in your paper though you no longer remember the source, it is still good practice to acknowledge the fact (e.g., “I read somewhere that those who have to steal ideas from others are more pitiable than those from whom the ideas are stolen”). What constitutes Common Knowledge should be fairly obvious, though (once again) different fields may have different standards. Nevertheless, you may safely assume that whatever most reasonably educated people know is in this realm (e.g., that George Washington was the first president of the United States or that Shakespeare was an Elizabethan playwright or that Freud is the father of psychoanalysis and the like – footnoting statements like this would just make you look silly).

Final Words of Advice: When everything is said and done, no matter what you say and do in a paper, acknowledge your sources and no one shall be able to accuse you of intellectual dishonesty. Not acknowledging your sources doesn’t simply make you look bad. It makes you a thief. It also deprives you of all credibility.

You really and truly owe it to yourself to do your own writing. You deserve to get credit for what you do. And you will get the credit, too, if you do it right.

*This article is written by Steven C Scheer.
*The writer notes: In the last decade of my active career in teaching, I used this handout in all my classes for all my students. I hope students who visit this Web site will read it and apply its advice to their own writing.

Students everywhere: you owe it to yourselves to do your own writing. And you owe it to yourselves to honestly and properly acknowledge all your sources.

This handout should help you towards realizing that goal. Take this advice to heart. It comes from an old teacher who offers it to you with all his heart. Send e-mail to:
scheer@sigecom.net

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