24 Plagiarism

Writing Tip: Avoiding Plagiarism

The term plagiarism is derived from the Latin word for “kidnapper.” When you plagiarize, you essentially ‘kidnap’ another person’s words or ideas and pass them off as your own without acknowledgment. Plagiarism is often a deliberate act. Whether a student is trying to get out of writing a paper and copies one from the web or a songwriter ‘ steals’ lyrics from a band member, plagiarism is wrong. Deliberate plagiarism is an intentional misrepresentation meant to deceive the reader.

However, plagiarism can also be unintentional. On an old episode of Seinfeld, the character of Elaine creates a political cartoon for the New York Times, only to find later that it was an exact copy of another comic strip.

This often happens in music and poetry, too. These are often not deliberate acts of plagiarism, but they are plagiarism just the same and can lead to negative consequences for the perpetrator. For example, when MC Hammer used some of the music from the song “Super Freak” in his song “Can’t Touch This,” it resulted in a law suit.

Students often plagiarize unintentionally, as well, simply because they do not realize what should be cited. For example, a student might include a statistic in his/her paper and not give the source. That is plagiarism. If a student copies a sentence or two from a Wikipedia article and gives the source in parentheses after the quote, but does not put the quote in quotations marks, that is plagiarism.

Avoiding Plagiarism

Student plagiarism most often occurs during note taking or drafting, as students rushing to complete a thought insert a quote, with every intention to go back and properly cite the source. Of course, once the paper is done, those good intentions mean little when the student can’t remember what was a quote and what was his own idea.

One way to avoid unintentional plagiarism is to begin by writing down your own ideas first. Put an asterisk * in the text where you know you want to insert a quote, but don’t put the quote in yet. This method ensures that you are consciously inserting quotes at a time when you can take the time to cite the source properly. One side benefit of this method is that you don’t lose your train of thought while writing. Another is that you are focusing on your own words and ideas—not simply reporting what others have said. In fact, APA guidelines state that no more than 20% of a text should be referenced from other sources.

Another important step is to carefully check your text against each source. Make sure that all direct quotes are properly enclosed in quotation marks and cited. Double check that any paraphrases are also cited properly.

As a student, you also have the option to subscribe to a plagiarism detection service. Some of them charge a minimal fee, like www.writecheck.com. Others are free, like grammarly.com. The percentage score you receive tells you how much of the paper is word for word quoting from other sources. Reviewing your report can help you identify improper citation and unintentional plagiarism. Remember that any score over 20% is unacceptable—even if every quote is properly documented–as no more than 20% of your paper should be citations from outside sources.

Note that ideas that are common knowledge do not need to be cited. Common knowledge includes well-known facts or general knowledge (like the number of states in the union or the team that won the Super Bowl). Sometimes what is common knowledge in the field you are studying may not be common knowledge to you. But, if you see the same thing over and over again in all of your sources, this is probably common knowledge. When in doubt, always cite!

Consequences of Plagiarism

The consequences of plagiarism vary widely, depending on the writing situation. Songwriters caught plagiarizing face hefty fines, as well as the possible end to their careers. Academic writers may lose their jobs. Students can receive failing grades or even be expelled from school. Regardless of your writing situation, your credibility as a writer and as a person and as a research is compromised. Take the extra time to verify your sources and give credit where credit is due.

Content created by Karen Palmer and licensed under CC BY NC SA.


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The Worry Free Writer by Dr. Karen Palmer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.