Writing is hard enough without worrying about the literary offenses you could commit along the way. Spelling and grammar are easy enough to check and fix, but plagiarism is much more difficult to take on. Sometimes it's hard to even pinpoint what plagiarism is. The first trick to avoiding it, then, is to understand what it is and when you are doing it.
Plagiarism is the act of using someone else's words or ideas without properly giving them any credit. It's important to make sure you avoid plagiarism because your instructors need to be able to tell the difference between your thoughts and ideas and those of the sources you are using. They can't give you credit for your work otherwise, because it's simply not your work. If you want all your long, hard hours of writing to have merit, then your readers need to be able to trust you, so be honest about what's yours, and indicate any information or ideas in your essay that belong to others. After all, it's just plain polite to make sure that you give credit where credit is due.
Credit has to be given if you ever use
- someone else's ideas, thoughts, opinions or theories
- an exact quote of someone else's words, whether in writing or in spoken form
- a paraphrase of someone else's words, whether in writing or in spoken form
- information you obtained from a book, a newspaper, online, or any other source, that is not commonly known.
If you are talking about something that is common knowledge, you do not have to give them credit. Some pieces of information are just known and can be found in a number of different sources, so you can skip on citing such information.
Example: Barack Obama is the President of the United States.
If you were then to tell me a statistic on the percentage of people who favor President Barack Obama's healthcare reform, on the other hand, you would need to cite where you got that information.
In order to show you what plagiarism looks like, here's a passage from On Liberty, an essay by one of my favorite British authors, John Stuart Mill, "It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation;"
Copying word for word: Human beings can only become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forward, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others.
This is plagiarism because I've copied entire parts of the passage word for word, without quotation marks around it AND without any reference to the author of the passage. I have changed the order of some sentences, and replaced a few words with others, but besides that, I've basically copied John Stuart Mill's words in such a way that you would think they are mine.
Quoting but without citation: It is indeed true that "human beings can only become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forward".
Here I've actually used quotation marks around the words that I copied word for word, but it's still plagiarism because I am not citing any reference to the author's work. Simply putting quotation marks around something does not indicate to the reader that the words are not mine because quote marks can also be used to simply emphasize something: It isn't exactly "hard" to plagiarize; we do it all the time without knowing it.
Citing without quoting or parentheses: John Stuart Mill, in his essay On Liberty, claimed that human beings can only become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves. If uniqueness is squashed into every day uniformity, then we will never become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation.
I've told you the author and the title of his essay, but can you tell which words are his and which are mine? Is the whole paragraph from Mill or are my thoughts on his writing in there somewhere too? Where does Mill end and the writer begin? I have not used quotation marks or parenthetical citations to differentiate between Mill's writing and mine, so this is plagiarism.
Summarize and cite: John Stuart Mill's point in this passage from On Liberty is that if we are to gain anything from the geniuses in this world, then we need to let them cultivate their individuality. If we ask everyone who is different from the norm to become normal, we might be missing out on all the new wonders they can bring forth onto this planet.
Instead of coping the author's words exactly, I've summarized what he said in his passage in my own words. Pretend your friend catches you two minutes before class to ask what the book you were to have finished reading is about. You tell her in five minutes what the book is about; you hit all the main points and maybe even ruin the ending for her. I did the same with this passage, and I cited the author and his work.
Quote and cite: John Stuart Mill argues that “it is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth … that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation” (1055). I can certainly feel the dire warning that Mill is trying to pass on to humanity through this message.
Along with my quotation marks, you can see that I've also given the author's last name and the page number where the lines I've quoted are from. My reader can simply pick up the book that I referenced with the passage in it, go to the page, and find the quote I used. After the quote is done, I can respond or give my opinions on what Mill is saying.
Paraphrase and cite: Mill was of the opinion that squashing a person's uniqueness would not be beneficial to society. In order to let society reap the true usefulness of unique individuals, they need to be allowed room to be themselves so that they can better the human race (1055).
I've now paraphrased the lines I wanted to use in my own words. When paraphrasing something, try to read it a couple of times, put it away, and then pretend to relate what you read to your friend. You are much less likely to lift words from the book if you can't even see them.
There are a lot of little things to take care of when you're quoting other people's work. There are rules about what to cite and how to cite it, be it the author's last name, first name, the title of the work or website, where it was published, and other things. There are different language associations that deal with these issues. The most common one you will find yourself using is MLA (Modern Language Association) citations. If you are learning Psychology, then you might use APA (American Psychology Association) citations. But don't let these technicalities scare you away from citing your sources. There are lots of resources, from handbooks to online websites, to help you figure out how to cite correctly.
The word plagiarism often carries a negative connotation because it questions your integrity as a writer. Why should readers need to know where your sources came from? Do they not trust you? Do they just want to fact check everything you've said because they don't believe you? When these questions pop into your head, please remember that writing isn't about taking offense the minute someone wants to check your sources. Writing is about wanting someone to go, "Wow, that's interesting. I'm going to go home and read these sources myself!" Let your writing be an avenue through which others can learn and grow just as much as you have. So give credit where it's due, because your unique and creative ideas deserve just as much credit as the sources that inspired your writing.