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

A 3-Part Series

Part Two: Art of the Paraphrase

Last week’s post discussed the intricacies of unintentional plagiarism. This week, we’ll discuss what most professors believe is the main cause of unintentional plagiarism: failure to paraphrase correctly. In a random poll of MCC English instructors, the majority responded that failure to paraphrase correctly was the number one cause of unintentional plagiarism. According to the online writing lab, Purdue Owl, the definition of paraphrase is “putting a passage from source material into your own words. A paraphrase must also be attributed to the original source. Paraphrased material is usually shorter than the original passage, taking a somewhat broader segment of the source and condensing it slightly.” This sounds simple enough, but the problem lies when the paraphrased material is not changed significantly enough. So how do you know when enough is enough?

Below is an example  from Purdue Owl of an original passage, followed by an acceptable and unacceptable paraphrase:

The original passage:

Students frequently overuse direct quotation in taking notes, and as a result they overuse quotations in the final [research] paper. Probably only about 10% of your final manuscript should appear as directly quoted matter. Therefore, you should strive to limit the amount of exact transcribing of source materials while taking notes. Lester, James D. Writing Research Papers. 2nd ed. (1976): 46-47.

An acceptable paraphrase:

In research papers students often quote excessively, failing to keep quoted material down to a desirable level. Since the problem usually originates during note taking, it is essential to minimize the material recorded verbatim (Lester 46-47).

A plagiarized version:

Students often use too many direct quotations when they take notes, resulting in too many of them in the final research paper. In fact, probably only about 10% of the final copy should consist of directly quoted material. So it is important to limit the amount of source material copied while taking notes.

First, let’s look at the plagiarized passage. In this version, the paragraph seems to have been cut and pasted, with a minor switching of synonyms (“often” for “frequently”; “when they take” for “in taking notes”; inserting “In fact”; “final copy” for “final manuscript”; “So” for “Therefore”).

This is considered plagiarized because the passage is not in the writer’s own words. Even though the writer has changed a few words, and added and removed a few, the majority of the passage remains the same. In addition, the sentence structure has not been changed, which indicates it was probably cut and pasted.

In the acceptable paraphrase, we can deduce that the writer read the original version, and then wrote his or her own shortened version, as it is condensed slightly and is in the writer’s words, using his or her own style and sentence structure.

Some key tips to follow when paraphrasing:

  1. Always read the original passage until you thoroughly understand the information.
  2. Write down your paraphrase on a note card, using your own language and sentence structure, making sure to keep the original’s meaning intact.
  3. Use the note card to also write down the source information so you can properly document it on your Works Cited or Reference page.

Remember, just because you have paraphrased a source into your own words does not mean you don’t have to document the source. The information still originated with someone else, and those ideas are “owned” by that person.

Now that you know how to correctly paraphrase to avoid unintentional plagiarism, if you fail to paraphrase or cite correctly, are you committing intentional plagiarism? I would like to hear what you think. Send me your responses and we’ll talk about the results in next week’s post.

For more questions on paraphrasing, documenting sources, or unintentional plagiarism visit Purdue Owl.




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