Generally speaking, people know they should not plagiarize. Plagiarism is simple, right? It’s when a person claims credit for work that is not theirs. However, I have seen many excuses for plagiarism once an individual is caught. Suddenly, it seems, the rules of engagement were unclear. The person didn’t mean to do it!
Unfortunately, however, most people find it difficult to judge intent, so if you are caught plagiarizing, you will probably have to face the consequences–ignorance is not innocence. To avoid that scenario, here are some simple rules to follow to ensure that you are doing your best to give others credit for their work.
- You cannot just quote someone by saying “As Aristotle once said….” and leaving it there with no book or page number. You need to provide the source where you found this quote. This enables your readers to judge its credibility. (And, once you do some research, you might actually discover Aristotle never said that at all. How awkward if someone else had discovered this first.)
- There is such a thing as self-plagiarism. You may have written the paper yourself, but you cannot turn it in for more than one class. If you must use your previous work, it is possible to cite yourself. Academic authors often do, especially if they are one of the few people working in a particular field.
- If you think of an idea and then read it later in a book, you need to cite the book. You may have been really pleased with your own cleverness, but the people reading your work have no way to verify that your thought came first. Better safe than sorry.
- It is possible to try to rephrase something, but do it in such a way that your sentences still resemble the original text too closely. If you do this, you will probably be accused of something like academic misconduct rather than plagiarism, but you still want to avoid this scenario. If you are unsure how to rephrase something sufficiently, it is probably better to quote the original text directly.
- If your classmate says something in seminar that you think is brilliant, you have to credit your classmate when you put their thought in your paper. Likewise, if someone gives you an idea in a conversation or through email, you should credit that person. (Keep in mind that some professors may not want you discussing your work with other people. I once took a class where it was against the honor code even to ask someone to proofread your paper. Always abide by the course policy.)
- Plagiarism is more than copying and pasting paragraphs or large chunks of text into your paper. Taking a sentence from a source here and a source there and sprinkling them throughout your paper without citation is still unethical, as is interspersing your sentences with phrases drawn from others’ work.
Remember, when in doubt, cite your sources! Citing your sources demonstrates that you have done your research and are equipped to speak on a subject, allows your readers to assess the credibility of your evidence, and gives credit to all the great people who helped you produce your work. If you don’t know how to cite something properly or are unsure if you have paraphrased too closely, always ask your instructor before the work is due. They want to help you!