Plagiarism is stealing the intellectual work of someone else and passing it off as your own. While this definition seems simple enough, plagiarism can take many different forms. The theft can be deliberate, such as the purchasing of a paper. Plagiarism might also be as innocent as forgetting to cite your source. Plagiarism can even occur somewhere in between these two poles—that is, the intellectual theft is not outright stealing, nor is it completely without guile. But no matter where plagiarism falls on this continuum, the result is the same: using someone else’s words or ideas without giving credit is stealing. It’s the same thing as looking over the shoulder of a fellow student during a math exam or smuggling in notes to a science test. If you are caught, the penalties can range from receiving a zero on your paper to failing the entire course...or even being suspended or expelled. The good news is that all teachers would rather see an honest, even if flawed, effort from their students rather than the perfected work of someone else.
What Plagiarism Is
1) Buying a paper. This is deliberate stealing of the worst sort, and if caught, you will definitely suffer the most severe disciplinary penalties. Increasingly, more and more high schools, colleges, and universities are using plagiarism detection services such as turnitin.com, which can tell your teacher or professor just how much of your paper was stolen. While some essay writing “services” may tell you that your purchase is undetectable, don’t believe it. Even if these charlatans are telling the truth, sites commonly known as “paper mills” tend to sell the same paper over and over. Teachers report having seen the same paper turned in by different students in the same class! This is stealing and cheating and it’s wrong.
2) Not citing your source. Sometimes you may decide to directly quote from someone or paraphrase his or her ideas. Using the format your instructor prefers (e.g., MLA, Chicago, or APA), you must say where you have located the quotation and/or ideas. Failing to do so makes it appear that you are either claiming the ideas as your own or that you have not done the proper leg work to verify your materials. If you want proof of just how much the literary community looks down on this failure to cite sources, consider the case of the famous historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose inattention to citation nearly destroyed her reputation. Failure to cite your sources is a form of plagiarism, and, once again, this is stealing and cheating and it’s wrong.
3) Your dad’s, your mom’s, or your roommate’s words are not your own. You may know that cutting and pasting from the Internet or copying passages out of a book constitutes plagiarism, but another form of academic dishonesty is to have a friend or family member write your paper (or portions of your paper) for you. This is not to say that you shouldn’t talk to knowledgeable people to get their perspective on your subject, but having someone else substantially write words for you is cheating. Furthermore, you are unlikely to get away with this form of plagiarism. Most instructors will know your “voice,” whether from previous assignments or from your in-class contributions during discussions. If your ideas and phrasing seems markedly different from your efforts in the past, be sure that a teacher’s alarm will sound. Taking ideas from someone else is plagiarism; once again, this is stealing and cheating and it’s wrong.
4) A little of this, a little of that. Veteran teachers have keen noses for plagiarism. One of their most unpleasant duties is tracking down uncited text cobbled together from many sources. You might think that if the entire passage isn’t copied word for word, professors will not be able to locate the theft. This is not the case. It is no more difficult for instructors to locate the multiple source materials than it was for you to find them in the first place. This kind of deliberate plagiarism raises our collective hackles, and we tend to push for the most severe penalties for this type of offender. In case you are unclear, taking words from multiple sources is stealing and cheating and it’s wrong.
What Plagiarism Isn’t
1) Common knowledge. One important thing to know is that information considered common knowledge or in the “public domain” does not need to be cited. Certain facts are so well-known that you don’t need to worry about finding verification. For example, saying that “the sun rises in the East and sets in the West” or that there are “fifty states in America” need not be cited.
2) Your own opinions and conclusions. A good paper will rely on both primary and secondary source material, but your own thoughts and opinions about the text and its commentators are obviously yours and need not be cited. For example, if you decide that Charlotte Bronte’s character Jane Eyre is a forerunner to the modern feminist movement, and you’ve drawn your opinion based on quotations from the novel and its critics, you are entitled to your opinion and, indeed, it is desired!
How to Be Honest
1) Never cut and paste unless you intend to use a direct quotation. It is too easy to forget where and why you’ve used a source, so avoid cutting and pasting unless you are absolutely sure you want to use the quotation word for word. Also immediately make note of the source so that you can cite it in your paper.
2) Create a separate file for Internet materials. Anything you want to summarize or paraphrase from the Internet should be kept separately from your paper in order to avoid unintentional plagiarism. Be sure to bookmark sites or otherwise make note of anything you may wish to use in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety later.
3) Recheck any suspect language. Review your paper, and if a word, phrase, or passage doesn't seem like your own thinking and/or writing, type a few words into a search engine such as Google to verify its originality. Better you should catch it now and properly cite it than to be accused of plagiarizing!
4) Ask a friend to review. Sometimes you can look at a paper or passage for so long that you might no longer see errors. If at all possible, have a friend review your work before turning it in. He or she can more easily key in on language that seems out of character for you or point out obvious omissions in citations.