Beg, Borrow and Steal: Plagiarism and how to avoid it

A 3-Part Series

Part One: Intentional and Unintentional Plagiarism

Your research assignment requires you to use outside sources, so you scan the internet and library databases and find a few full-text articles that fit your needs. You cut and paste the quotes you want to use into your paper, but are careful to acknowledge the source of the information in your paper. Is this considered plagiarism?

OR

You have found the perfect sources to use in support of your argument, and you are careful to take the quotes and change a few words so it is not worded exactly the same as the article. Is this considered plagiarism?

OR

You have used several direct quotes in your research paper, but have not included author or attributive tags; however, you have cited the sources in the text and on your Works Cited or Reference page. Is this considered plagiarism?

The answer to all three examples: it depends.

Hearing the word “plagiarism” is enough to send some students into a panic, and causes great concern among faculty. Often a great deal of time and even money is spent on fancy plagiarism-finding software to catch the culprits of cut-and-paste papers. Syllabi are full of “Academic Honesty” sections, and college handbooks warn of the severe consequences that will befall the student who stoops to such practices. Students are often confused and bewildered by all the intricacies involved in citing sources correctly.

According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, to “plagiarize” means

•to pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own

•to use (another’s production) without crediting the source

•to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source(http://www.plagiarism.org/plag_article_what_is_plagiarism.html).

Every student knows to pass off another’s work as his own is intentional plagiarism. But when you search for formal definitions of plagiarism, you’ll find no delineation between “intentional” and “unintentional” plagiarism. Part one of our three-part series on plagiarism will attempt to define unintentional plagiarism.

Unintentional Plagiarism

Poor Citation

One type of unintentional plagiarism is when a student uses words or ideas of another and fails to give the original source credit. This lack of acknowledgment usually happens when students are learning how to integrate research into their papers. This can be remedied by simply learning how to cite properly. The following direct quote is from an essay by Roger Sipher:

Incorrect:

“A decline in standardized test scores is but the most recent indicator that American education is in trouble.”

As you can see, there is no in-text citation, or parenthetical reference, to identify the writer or source. Also, remember to always include some kind of introductory tag along with direct quotes, as direct quotes should never stand alone as a sentence.

Correct:

According to Sipher, “A decline in standardized test scores is but the most recent indicator that American education is in trouble” (25).

The second example has not only included the page reference to the source, but also added a few words of introduction. Regardless of whether you directly quote, summarize or paraphrase, the original source must always be cited in text, as well as listed on the Works Cited or Reference page.

Poor Quoting

When you want to directly quote a source, take care to put quotation marks around all of the words that came from the source, whether it’s one word or fifty. Inserting exact wording from a source without using quotation marks is a form of plagiarism, whether you cite the source or not.

Incorrect:

A decline in standardized test scores is but the most recent indicator that American education is in trouble (Sipher 25).

Correct:

“A decline in standardized test scores is but the most recent indicator that American education is in trouble” (Sipher 25).

OR

According to Roger Sipher, author of, “So That Nobody Has To Go To School If They Don’t Want To,” “A decline in standardized test scores is but the most recent indicator that American education is in trouble” (25).

Poor Paraphrasing

When you want to paraphrase, you must not only change the words of the original source, but the sentence structure as well. Simply replacing one word with a synonym is not enough to avoid plagiarism.

Original:

“Childhood obesity is a serious medical condition that affects children and adolescents. It occurs when a child is well above the normal weight for his or her age and height. Childhood obesity is particularly troubling because the extra pounds often start children on the path to health problems that were once confined to adults, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.”

Poor Paraphrase:

“Obesity in children is a serious condition that affects children and teens. It occurs when a child is above the normal weight for his or her age and height. Childhood obesity is particularly worrisome because the extra pounds often cause kids to have health problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.”

Notice that in the poorly paraphrased example, a few words were omitted and a few were changed to a word with the same meaning. The sentence structure – the order of the words in the sentences – however, has not been altered. Any time you want to paraphrase or summarize, it’s best to read the section and then put in your own words. Avoid cutting and pasting, then simply tweaking the language.

As you can see, once you understand how to correctly cite and quote research, you can avoid most unintentional plagiarism errors.

Next time: More on the the art of the paraphrase

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5 comments on “Beg, Borrow and Steal: Plagiarism and how to avoid it

  1. maggiechristensen says:

    Thanks, Elizabeth! I’m going to have my students read this!
    Can’t wait for parts 2 and 3. . .

    Like

  2. Joel Thomas says:

    Good stuff, emack! I will definitely link my students to your series. I’m teaching an online course, too, and this will be especially helpful for them.

    Like

  3. Tim Riley says:

    This is great. Next week my face-to-face and online classes start the first of 2 research essays. I’ll use this.

    Like

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