Plagiarism: Ambiguities and Remedies

According to the University of Puget Sound Academic Handbook on Academic Honesty, in the academic community "there is the expectation that work will be independently thoughtful and responsible as to its sources of information and inspiration." This means that words and ideas in writing that are not your own must be quoted and cited properly. Even words and ideas that have been paraphrased from another source or information that is not common or general knowledge must be properly cited. Indeed, it seems that everything must be cited: Welcome to writing in the university!

Many students at the University of Puget Sound are unfamiliar with the various forms of plagiarism, and still more are unaware of the serious nature of such "academic dishonesty." At the Writing Center we feel it is important to inform students of the ways in which it is possible to plagiarize—even unwittingly—since plagiarism can result from poor peer editing and note-taking techniques.

Definition of Plagiarism: Why the confusion?

The University of Puget Sound Handbook clearly describes plagiarism, and yet students still get confused: "To plagiarize means to take someone else's words and/or ideas and put them into writing as though they were yours." Undoubtedly, the reason for students' confusion is that this definition implies a motive of intent, as if students purposefully steal words and ideas without giving credit where credit is due. While these extreme cases of plagiarism do occur, albeit infrequently, many students simply plagiarize without meaning to do so.

Some Helpful Hints to Avoid Plagiarism (augmented and adapted from the 2001-02 University of Puget Sound Handbook)

  1. If you borrow more than three words in a row from someone else, put them in quotation marks. If the quoted text exceeds 4 lines of prose or 3 lines of poetry, indent one inch from the left margin only and do not include quotation marks. Both short and long quotations must be cited correctly with a footnote, endnote, or parenthetical citation. Feel free to visit the Writing Center for help with quoting and citing correctly (MLA, APA, or Chicago style).
  2. Sometimes it is more convenient to paraphrase rather than quote a writer's words for clarity or emphasis. In this case, however, the author's original passage must still be cited appropriately.
  3. "Cite any thoughts you got from a specific source in your reading." Citing in this way allows the reader to understand the connection between your ideas and the ideas of other sources. To avoid citing the inspiration of your thoughts is to ignore the thinkers or ideas that have laid the groundwork for your own discoveries.
  4. "Cite any material, ideas, thoughts, etc., you got from your reading that can't be described as general knowledge." Deciding what constitutes "general knowledge" can be tricky, and elements such as audience and purpose must be seriously considered. Any esoteric or specific information/ideas that serve as background to a discussion, or that you might be taking for granted in your discussion, are not worthy candidates of "general knowledge." This information must be properly cited. When in doubt, use quotes.
  5. "Cite any summary (even if in your own words) of a discussion from one of your sources." If it is clear in your writing, or even clear to yourself, that you are summarizing a source, that source must be properly cited.

From the Writing Center: Some Additional Helpful Hints to Avoid Plagiarism

Did you know that allowing someone else to simply edit or "fix" your writing can be considered plagiarism?

Peer editing is an excellent way to improve your writing and get feedback from others. However, allowing others to manipulate your words and sentences to the point that they are obviously not your own is a form of plagiarism. To avoid plagiarism, allow your peers to illuminate weaknesses in your writing but take responsibility for strengthening those weaknesses yourself. Ideas can be expressed in many different ways: your individual voice and writing style will develop most fruitfully if you actively engage in the revising and "fixing" process.

Did you know that poor note-taking can lead to plagiarism?

Many students take comprehensive notes before beginning an essay and will often work from their notes to produce a rough draft. This process can be very successful if your notes summarize original ideas and information in your own words rather then simply transcribe words and phrases from an original source. Sometimes the way an author expresses an idea seems absolutely perfect, and it is difficult to re-word his or her thought in your notes. Thus, many students don't realize that they have copied an author's original words into their notes until it is too late. If these notes make it into your essay without citation, then this is plagiarism. In order to avoid plagiarism, make a habit of taking notes that express original ideas and information in your own words. Also, be sure to put quotation marks around direct quotes and include page numbers of reference in your notes. Although it may be difficult at first, effective and honest note-taking gets easier with practice and greatly benefits the quality of your writing, and thinking, in the long term.

Remember, citations are simply part of the language of the academy. Citations add credibility to your arguments, allow other thinkers and writers to be recognized for their contributions to a particular field, and allow readers to "join the conversation," so to speak. Quoting and citing sources correctly in your writing distinguishes your ideas from other sources, and allows readers to argue and criticize your interpretation and honest use of other information—the genuine challenge of scholarly writing.

By Carly Blanchard '03
The Writing Center