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What Is Plagiarism?

Written by tutor Colin D.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “plagiarism” as “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.” While this is a fairly clear description of the unethical act of plagiarism, it’s actually somewhat mild, given the plagiarism’s etymology. Taken from the Latin “plagiarius,” which translates to “kidnapper,” plagiarism really is a theft of a defenseless item: the creative expression of another.

Although plagiarism is not expressly illegal, it is certainly unethical and is a violation of all academic institutions’ codes of behavior. The notion of stealing the ideas, expressions, and language of another – and doing so without attributing authorship to that other person or source – is academically dishonest, punishable by suspension or expulsion, and is fundamentally unfair to the original author, the reader, the instructor, and the plagiarist him/herself.

Am I Plagiarizing?

Plagiarism is not simply reducible to transplanting – or in the patois of today, “cutting and pasting” – the words of another, and portraying those words as our own, original work. Rather, plagiarism is rather protean: it has multiple forms and degrees within those forms. Whether a person makes the crude and clumsy gesture of “secretly borrowing” and inserting a block quote into his/her own writing, or whether a person more cunningly alters periodic phrases, meticulously misdirects the reader by citing nonexistent or incorrect sources, or surreptitiously reuses their own work without proper reference, that person is guilty of plagiarism.

Copying Someone Else’s Work

This is pretty straightforward: DON’T COPY ANYONE ELSE’S WORK! Even if you give them credit, this doesn’t save you from plagiarism. In effect, you’ve just turned in a paper for someone else, with the added (cue sarcasm) “benefit” of guaranteeing yourself disciplinary action.

Copying Most of Someone Else’s Work

Moderating your copying doesn’t moderate the characterization of what you’ve done, nor does it temper the punishment! In some ways this block-borrowing is even more obvious, devious, and insulting than a complete copy.

It’s obvious because, in juxtaposing your work with that of a citation-worthy author, you’re likely calling attention to your less polished rhetorical style. Maybe you’re as talented as the author you wish to cite, but that inevitably begs the question: If you’re as accomplished, talented, and capable as the author, why do you need to take the author’s words?

It’s devious because it literally uses a less direct way of accomplishing the prohibited, profane act. Further, it’s devious because it relies on an arguably more clandestine, underhanded scheme than just a complete transplant.

Finally, it’s insulting to your teacher and you yourself. It’s insulting to your teacher because it presumes your teacher isn't competent enough to catch your blatant fabrication and illegitimate reproduction. For what it’s worth, you’re not as clever as you think, and your teachers are more clever than you think. They also have a wealth of resources at their disposal which make this level of conscious plagiarism really a fated, futile pastime. It’s insulting to you yourself because it shows that you don’t believe you can finish your thoughts and manage your paper. It shows an intrinsic lack of faith in your ability to write about a subject and assert a thesis.

Copying Yourself

This may sound silly, but it’s actually quite serious. Copying your previous work, your previous submissions, is actually academically dishonest. Having turned in that previous work, it is part of the massive library of human literary creation. To reuse it requires citation, just like using any other work.

While you may have the benefit of more instinctively grasping the sentences/claims of your earlier work – and won’t have to apologize for having that insight – you cannot simply transplant sentences/phrases without properly citing them.

However, you may discuss the same ideas, and even refer to your original research. But, you must present the ideas in a non-identical way, and there still must be a citation chain leading to the original work!

Change-a-Phrase is NOT Paraphrase

A weaker form of plagiarism, but perhaps an even bigger waste of time. Merely cruising through a copied section of text and using a dictionary or thesaurus to help you replace words does nothing to help you or reduce the severity of your actions.

Why bother to just change words? If you’re going to pore over an entire (stolen) document in a tedious, halting fashion, why not actually learn what it’s about, internalize its contents, and restate them in your own words?

Moreover, if you’re that desperate to perform this piecemeal replacement that you’d risk dishonesty and disciplinary action, what makes you think you properly understand the context, syntax, and tone of the words you’re replacing? Chances are, you don’t. Thus, your replacements are likely verbal fire-alarms, drawing the teacher’s eye to the awkward, inconsistent structure of your sentences, and the obvious copyright infringement that’s transpired.

Only Citing Some of Your Borrowed Passages

In the era of and similar anti-plagiarism tools, not citing a passage is tantamount to announcing your guilt to the jury. You’ve literally submitted evidence of your guilt, in a way that will surely implicate you through objective technological proof.

Further, citing some passages hardly convinces an even modestly scrutinizing teacher that you’ve been fair in your citations. It may, in fact, signal that other non-cited segments – which match the cited segments in maturity of prose, etc. – are in fact improperly un-cited passages.

Citations Leading Nowhere

A variation on the periodic non-citing, citing to fictional sources is not a credible alternative. That is, attempting to hoodwink your teacher by redirecting him/her to a different source than that from which you actually impermissibly “borrowed” information, will not pan out as you plan. Not only will the “borrowed” component show up on a scan, but it is really a matter of minimal effort to verify/disavow the accuracy of your citation.

Over-cite Oversights

Finally, you cannot just build a paper purely out of borrowed sources and statements. That is, you must have original thought, original arguments, original claims. You cannot just suggest that your thesis is best stated by a host of other thinkers and theorists. This former of over-citing can very quickly lead to problems.

Perhaps an analogy will hammer in the stupidity of drafting a paper in this manner:

Envision a professional athlete walking right up to his/her league commissioner or governing body and stating, “Don’t worry about drug-testing me, I have used HGH, testosterone, blood-boosters, EPO, steroids, and every other illegal substance I could find. They’re all operating in me right now, all of my endurance and all of my muscles are because of them. But, it’s okay, because I’ll tell everyone I use them, so no one will get the wrong idea.

Seriously? Why would anyone – why would you – ever do that?

How Do I Write an Essay Without Plagiarizing?

Too many students – young and old – assume that with the millions of sources in print, and the millions of opinions or interpretations of popular literature, that no one will either notice or be offended by their particular and disingenuous act of “borrowing” the claims of another. Sadly, these students assume too much. In taking (sometimes quite convoluted) steps to avoid detection in their academic theft, plagiarists often end up doing more work than actually performing original research and writing would entail. Furthermore, all the dishonest efforts at creating a falsified original actually create a lot of stress without much of a reward. That is, whereas the diligent student who researches, writes, and cites fastidiously actually grows as a student and engenders positive work habits as a result of his/her mental strains, the plagiarist only succeeds in creating problems, fostering immoral instincts, and stagnating his/her intellectual development. Having established that, from a cost-benefit analysis, the plagiarist actually loses more than he/she gains, conscious plagiarism seems misguided, even counterproductive. This realization naturally begs the question: “How does one avoid plagiarism?”

Start Early

  • The earlier you start, the less inclined you’ll be to cut corners or look for expedited methods that seem (when you rationalize them) “innocent.”
  • Starting early allows you the time to potentially struggle in grasping the depth of research, locating sources, or getting your thoughts organized and articulated.
  • Ultimately, starting early means you’ll be less tempted to compromise your morals to ensure the project gets finished. Thus, the early start is a tremendous safeguard against prospective plagiarism.

Strategize With Your Teacher

  • The best way to be assured that you aren’t plagiarizing is to talk to your teacher. Let him/her know where and how you’re struggling, establish a plan of research/writing, and ensure that at each step along the way your teacher okays your planned usage of another author’s words.
  • Not only will your work product more closely resemble the ideal your teacher has in mind, but you will also have increased peace of mind throughout the process. You won’t have to worry about citing too much, too poorly, or just plain incorrectly.
  • Ultimately, as easy as it is to confer with your teacher before and during the writing process, it all boils down to your willingness to take the initiative and ensure the temptation to take shortcuts doesn’t arise.

Annotate While Reading

  • The best time spot great quotes and incorporate the text – through proper citation – is to take notes as you read. Write in the margins, or write on a separate note pad, or even write notes on a laptop. Keeping a written record of important statements you’ve read allows you to not only spot and retain great material for future citation, but it actually helps you better understand the text itself.

Outline Before You Write

  • Make a plan for your claims and their presentation, and organize your writing. Develop a thesis and support it with arguments. To validate and substantiate these arguments, make sure you’ve incorporated some primary or secondary sources/authority.
  • In putting a clear outline – Introduction, Body paragraphs, Arguments, Illustrative Quotes, YOUR Interpretation of Quotes, and a Conclusion – together, you’ll ensure that you have something to say and don’t need to rely on the words of someone else (entirely, or even primarily) to say it!

Don't Be Afraid of Citation

  • Use citation effectively. Don’t overcompensate out of fear of plagiarism and fail to incorporate outside sources into your writing. The hallmark of effective, convincing essays and arguments is their ability to prove their point. To prove those points, you’ll need to rely on established authorities and the opinions of experts. Be sure to incorporate the sources you’ve read, and be sure to consult the appropriate citation manuals (e.g., MLA, Chicago, APA, Bluebook, etc.) when doing so.

Don't Be Vague in Citation

  • When citing, don’t be sloppy about where the quotes come from. Be sure you get the correct pages (or lines, where necessary (e.g., poetry)). Furthermore, make sure you’ve consulted the appropriate citation manuals that explain how to cite within a given citation style (e.g., MLA, Chicago, APA, Bluebook, etc.).
  • Make sure you clearly differentiate between what you quote – and attribute to another author – and what you state as your own interpretation. Blurring this line can cause problems.

Understand What Paraphrasing Means & Be Sure to CITE!

  • To paraphrase effectively, it is essential you not just understand the meanings of the individual words used in another source. Instead, you must understand the meaning of the arguments those words (in extended sequence) create.
  • Once you’ve understood what a passage is about, and you’ve established your assessment/interpretation of that passage, it is ok – especially where the exact language is not conducive to direct quoting – to state the relevant points made by that outside source, your interpretation of them, how/why you’re using them, and what the effect of your using them is.
  • Be sure you CITE the outside source, even when you’ve paraphrased.
  • In short, use outside sources to buffer and legitimize your arguments. Where you don’t completely agree with a passage, or feel you can more effectively state the crux of the passage in your own terms, do so. Just be sure to CITE it!
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