Chapter 41: AVOIDING PLAGIARISM
Plagiarizing has stiff penalties. How can
you avoid it?
What Is Plagiarism?
Facts about Plagiarizing: An Honest
Levels: From Extreme Plagiarism to Safety
Getting Rid of the Need to
This chapter discusses what all good instructors
consider a highly unethical act: plagiarism. If an instructor thinks you
have committed plagiarism, even if accidental, the least of disciplines you can
expect is a requirement to rewrite your paper. Often, instructors enact
some kind of penalty, from mild to extremely serious, depending on the
instructor and situation. Professors of top universities have even lost
their jobs, and in the publishing world, authors have had their popular books
banned and even returned and destroyed because of their plagiarism.
Plagiarism also is pretty easy to detect if a professor decides to check for it.
So, it is important to know what plagiarism is so that you can not only avoid
the temptation of doing it purposely, but also avoid the accidental forms of it.
(Note: Much of this chapter is from
What Is Plagiarism?
"Plagiarism" is using someone else's words or ideas
without giving that person credit. It means taking the exact words of
someone without using quotation marks (" ") and the author's name to indicate
you've borrowed them, and it also means borrowing someone else's idea using your
own words--and not giving the original author credit.
"Plagiarism" does not mean you can never use
others' words or ideas--you should do so often and thoroughly; just be sure to
give credit to the authors. "Plagiarism" also does not mean you
should fear expressing your own ideas because you're worried that someone else
has already written about them, and you'll get in trouble for calling them your
own: just look up the idea after you get it and, if someone else also has
thought of it, give that author secondary credit, as in saying, "One idea is to
___. This also has been described by [author]."
One example of plagiarism is a Harvard professor who
was fired because he accidentally (according to him) forgot to add quotation
marks around quotations from other authors in a book he wrote. Another
example is of someone who wrote a business report for a teacher in college, and
it turned out that he had copied both words and ideas from a secret document at
his workplace, and another student recognized the document; the student was
docked two weeks' pay and put on probation for a year in his professional
workplace, and lost a lot of respect as a result.
There also is a version of "accidental" plagiarism
that students often commit but instructors don't realize is accidental.
Some students fresh out of high school think that it is okay to take an idea
from a source and, as long as they are putting it in their own words, they don't
need to supply the source name. For example, someone looking up an idea in
Wikipedia and then changing the words but writing about the same idea is
committing plagiarism if Wikipedia and the author in it are not given
credit. Many instructors do not realize that students in high school
sometimes are allowed to do this; an instructor may penalize you for this
accidental form of plagiarism just as much as if you were trying purposely to
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Sooner or later
in college, the thought of plagiarizing occurs to a majority of students. It
goes something like this: “I hate to write”
(or) “I only have one hour. What if I
just copy the thing from the Internet?”
Before you give in to this temptation,
consider these facts:
Straightforward, Honest Discussion about
you know you're bad to even consider it. However,
the idea is a temptation: it sounds so quick and easy.
plagiarizing is the big, red-for-danger "P" word in all good instructors'
minds: "PLAGIARISM." To both
instructors and administrators--and most of the professional world--this is
a very dirty word. Plagiarizers are given F's on papers, flunked out of
classes or schools, placed on academic probation, tossed off school teams,
fined or kicked out of jobs, and sometimes even sued for millions of bucks.
If you're caught, your name can be far worse than mud.
Second, there's no good reason to skip writing lessons. You need plenty of
practice because virtually all surveys show that 50-90% of people's
professional time is spent writing. And you will look dumb and unworthy if
you can't write competently. The better you write, usually the better your
salary and jobs.
Third, the sneaky part of your mind might still ask--especially if you're in
a crunch and a little woozy from too much of something the night
before--"Who's going to find out this time?"
So, fourth, the answer is, "Your teacher easily can." Seriously, the great
majority of instructors have ways of discovering your plagiarism by using
web searches or special software programs, many of which are free: just try,
for example, doing a web search for "detecting plagiarism."
Instructors--who tend to be fairly smart--usually work hard at trying to
Fifth, you'll end up sounding like someone else, and you also may have a
bibliography with print or URL sources ten or twenty years out of date--and
not even from your own school's library resources. Some instructors
can actually tell by the style of your writing, your bibliography sources,
and even the way you use punctuation that you've copied someone. Sometimes
they can even tell what school you attended before theirs, just from your
writing style--and what is NOT your old school's writing style.
So, sixth, get some muscle to your heart, gut, and mind: do the
paper. If it turns out bad or is just a rough draft, show it to the
teacher, ask for an extension, and offer to take a one-letter-grade
penalty. If you're too late to turn in anything at all, apologize to the
teacher afterward, ask if you can still turn a paper in for a reduced grade,
and prepare to eat crow: some instructors are more flexible, but only for
those students who ask for it and who apologize.
In the professional world to which you are headed, a bad memo or report
usually is better than no performance at all. And even no performance may
be forgivable at least once. But faking it ruins your rep--and often your
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Levels: From Extreme Plagiarism to Complete Safety
Let’s go into the details more about how to avoid plagiarism. Knowing the
details may save your grade and your academic career.
The most important act in avoiding plagiarism is to give credit to the author
for anything belonging to the author’s speaking, writing, or thinking. Second,
if you are using an author’s actual words, you must use quotation marks before
and after the author’s words.
There are five levels of plagiarism or lack of it.
Five Levels of Plagiarism vs. Non-Plagiarism
HIGHLY INTENTIONAL—USING SOMEONE ELSE’S PAPER OR ADDING FAKE QUOTATIONS,
IDEAS, OR AUTHORS:
You are clearly
committing plagiarism when you buy or copy an entire paper, or hire someone
else to write the paper for you. The same is true if you purposely pretend
to quote or paraphrase a source by making up words, ideas, and/or the
PENALTY: These are
all flunking-level events. Most instructors will flunk your paper, a number
will flunk you out of the course, and some schools will flunk you out of the
school or place you on academic probation. If you are caught doing this,
especially more than once, you are considered, at that time, morally and
ethically unfit for a degree.
USUALLY INTENTIONAL—STEALING A QUOTATION:
You are committing
plagiarism when you steal an author’s words by copying them to your own
paper with neither the quotation marks around them nor credit given by
providing the author’s name.
EXCEPTION: If you have forgotten the quotation marks OR the author’s name,
but not both, then this form of plagiarism likely is an accident. If it
appears accidental in this way, usually the great majority of instructors
will assume you made a mistake, and that you were not intentionally trying
to plagiarize. They will ask you to correct the mistake by adding so that
you have both quotation marks and the author’s name.
NOTE: If an expert gives you a direct oral quotation—as in an interview or
speech—you still must use quotation marks around the quotation and provide
the person’s name.
PENALTY: If you clearly committed this kind of plagiarism intentionally, you
likely will receive the same kind of consideration as in “1” above. If you
clearly committed plagiarism accidentally as described immediately above,
then you likely will simply have to rewrite or, if revision is not allowed,
lose points on your paper as you would for other major or minor problems in
INTENTIONAL? OR ACCIDENTAL?
You may be committing intentional or accidental plagiarism when you change
an author’s quotation into your own words without providing the author’s
name, or you take an idea that is exclusive to the author and you write it
as if it were your own idea, without the author’s name. However,
instructors consider both of these acts plagiarism. You MUST GIVE CREDIT TO
THE AUTHOR even when you place the author’s ideas into your own words.
This is accidental only in that many people think they are not plagiarizing
if they change an author’s words or ideas into their own words. But it is
still plagiarism. Plagiarism means “not giving credit for
words or an idea.” If you use an author’s idea (and it is unique to the
author), then you MUST give the author credit. Not doing so can get you in
just as much trouble as plagiarizing as can using an author’s own words as
if they were your own—many instructors do not see any difference between the
two, no matter what you might have intended.
NOTE: Using your own words for an author’s idea is actually a good thing.
It is called “paraphrasing,” and in many disciplines you are expected to
paraphrase a lot. The key is to always give the original author credit
after (or before) the paraphrase.
PENALTY: If you plagiarize in this way but you didn’t know it is plagiarism,
you will have a great deal of difficulty proving you didn’t know. This is
true in particular if you are a sophomore or higher, or if you have already
taken first-year composition. You may in some cases have to suffer the
penalties described in “1” above. However, if you really didn’t know the
difference, it may be worth your time to apologize, explain you didn’t know
the difference, and offer to fix the paper or replace it with a new one: in
either case, you still should be prepared for some kind of penalty, such as
lost points or a lower grade.
You have not plagiarized an author if you have
A. given the author credit for the author’s words or ideas by giving the
author’s name, and you have ALSO done one or more of these three things:
B. i. used quotation marks around (or an indent for)
the author’s own words,
ii. changed an author’s words to your own words, or
iii. used an author’s idea.
The most important part in avoiding plagiarism is to give credit to the
author for anything belonging to the author’s speaking, writing, or
thinking. Secondly, if you are using an author’s actual words, you must use
quotation marks around—or indent—them.
You have not plagiarized when you use common knowledge or your own ideas.
Common Knowledge: This means that a number of people have observed
it, or it is measurable by a number of different people. For example, the
distance between the sun and the earth is measurable by a large number of
people, so it is common knowledge, and you do not have to give an author
credit for it; however, a recent discovery in astronomy made by just one or
a small group of astronomers needs, when quoted or paraphrased, to be given
credit. For undergraduate writing, often a useful rule of thumb is that if
you can find a fact in a reference book—or in three sources—with none of
them quoting a specific original source, then the fact is common knowledge.
Your Own Idea: If an idea obviously is your own, then you don’t need
to quote anyone. But what should you do if you develop an idea and then
later discover it in a source? The safest way to handle it is to offer it
as your own idea but also cite the source: for example, you might write,
“Highly emotional people often have a life of dramatic contrasts, an idea
also mentioned by Dr. Joy Tamura.” And then you would include Tamura in
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Getting Rid of the Need to
There are two powerful reasons why many people are tempted in the first place to
plagiarize. Does either apply to you? One of the reasons is that you have
only a day (or an hour) to get your paper turned in, and you don’t know how to
start. The other problem, sometimes related to the first, is that you can’t
find or create a good subject. Here are potential solutions.
My paper is due tomorrow and I don't know how to start! Try one of
assignment two more times--and actually take notes on it.
different ways of starting your paper: wild brainstorming, talking with
someone, drawing a picture of an idea, et al. For more ideas, see "Chapter
2. Starting" in OnlineGrammar.org.
what others have done in
or "Chapter 20:
Writing in Fields and Disciplines"
in OnlineGrammar.org. Click on the type of paper you need, and follow the most explicit
directions or example you can find.
How soon is
"tomorrow" coming? If there's time, ask your professor--or ask a tutor in
your tutoring center.
friends in this order: i. those who've had the course and got A's
ii. those who've had the course; iii. anyone alive you can
anything and, tomorrow, show your rough draft and beg for an extension.
I can't think of a good subject! Try one of these:
professors don't bite (or if they do, they're not infectious), so ask him
or her. (It's better to annoy a professor a little than be a total
general or starting writing class: Take your assignment to your school's
writing or tutoring center and ask a tutor to help guide you in developing
your own ideas.
writing assignment in a specific discipline (e.g., literature, philosophy,
or one of the sciences): Take your assignment to your school's subject-oriented
tutoring center and ask a tutor in that subject.
favorite professor, a friend, or someone who gets A's or B's in the
subject or class.
assignment to a librarian and give the librarian his or her thrill of the
day by asking for help in choosing a subject (and tell them you only have
15-30 minutes before they give you 10,001 sources or 101 ways to search
If you make the effort to not plagiarize, you will be safe, you’ll learn more,
and you will be following the ethical path. Whichever reason you choose for not
plagiarizing, it is dangerous to try to plagiarize. Faculty members have a host
of ways to find out, often without even telling you. And the penalties for
plagiarizing just aren’t worth it.
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