Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism
>>>by Betsy Garman
Plagiarism can be defined as two actions: the attribution of someone else’s words or ideas as one’s own or the failure to attribute words or ideas to their appropriate source.1 Students and professionals alike must strive to prevent plagiarism. The code of ethics in the majority of academic fields is perfectly clear that plagiarism is unacceptable and is often followed by harsh repercussions.2 This article suggests some ways in which plagiarism can be avoided.
The Myths of Plagiarism
Plagiarism is not a matter of counting words. Changing a word or two within a sentence and then failing to attribute it to your source is still plagiarism. Choose a particular word within the sentence that describes the reason that the concept is worth using and look it up in the dictionary and the thesaurus. Its definition and synonyms will inspire you realize why this particular word or phrase describes this concept so well and will help you to refine your thoughts on the subject.
Within research common knowledge and its application often arises. Common knowledge is the concept that if something appears in a very large number of sources that it does not need to be attributed to any one source. For example, if you were writing a book chapter about honesty and you mentioned the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, depending upon the detail and the circumstances, you would not need to attribute this mention to any particular source.3 In general, I think that it is better to attribute something to a source then to leave the source out and end up with an error of omission.
General Suggestions to Avoid and Prevent Plagiarism
One simple way to avoid plagiarism is keep quotations surrounded by quotation marks. Those quotation marks are a reminder that the word, phrase, or sentence is not your own. In addition, a simple parenthetical note with the source name and year is another reminder to attribute the work in an appropriate fashion. The visual cues that the work belongs with or to someone else will keep you from forgetting which concepts and words are your own and which came from your sources.
Knowing how to cite your sources is another important aspect of preventing plagiarism. Whether you are including source information parenthetically or as a footnote, it is important to know what is required for the style and format within which you are working. If you do not own a style guide, consider buying one or photocopy the appropriate reference pages from your local library.
Within the grant writing field there is a practice that I call reverse attribution. Reverse attribution is writing a statement or phrase for your argument and then doing research to find a source that supports your statement. One particularly useful aspect of reverse attribution is there is less of an urge toward plagiarism since your argument is relatively developed upon location of a suitable source.
Another general practice that will make you a better writer is the ability to summarize material well. Whether you are summarizing an article in a couple of sentences or a whole book in one page, I suggest summarizing material as often as possible. I believe that this simple task will help you to refine your writing, recognize the important concepts within the material, and hone your ability to synthesize information without the desire to add a large number of quotations to your work.4
Plagiarism is a serious problem in the world in a wide variety of fields. Knowing the definition of plagiarism and the application of any of these suggestions will help you to avoid it. If you would like additional information about defining plagiarism, avoiding and preventing plagiarism, or actual cases of major cases or plagiarism, please consult one of the sources below.
Merriam Webster Online: Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary -- Plagiarize.
Hexham, Irving: Academic Plagiarism Defined.
Avoiding and Preventing Plagiarism
United States Naval Academy NIMITZ Library: Avoiding Plagiarism.
Purdue University Writing Center: Avoiding Plagiarism.
Actual Cases of Plagiarism in the Media
People’s Daily: New York Times Top Editors Resign Following Plagiarism Scandals. 6 June, 2003.
Kirkpatrick, David D: As Historian's Fame Grows, So Do Questions on Methods. New York Times. 11 January, 2002.
Wikipedia: Jayson Blair.
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