Don't Steal! Write Your Way Out of Plagiarism

  • Article's photo | Credit Mathew R. Morris
  • In any creative field, from academic essays to news articles and blog posts, giving credit where credit is due is essential. This is where understanding plagiarism comes in. Plagiarism is simply using someone else's work, ideas, or expressions without acknowledging them as the source.

What is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism boils down to using someone else's words or ideas without giving them credit. This equates to appropriating someone else’s work or ideas and presenting them as one’s own.

The term itself originates from the Latin word "plagiaries," which means "kidnapper," highlighting the act of stealing another's work. Interestingly, it also has roots in the Greek word "plagios," literally meaning "crooked" or "to be set obliquely." This further emphasizes the idea of plagiarism as a form of intellectual dishonesty, where someone takes another's work and presents it in a distorted or misrepresented way.

In academia, plagiarism is defined as “an intentional act of deception involving the presentation of someone else’s wording as a student’s own when the student is well aware that the language or general organization of the paper has come from another source” (Dr. Quickwit, Plagiarizm: How Profs Spot a Cheat).

For researchers, plagiarism is a serious ethical breach, undermining the very foundation of academic integrity. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) define plagiarism in scientific misconduct as the appropriation of another's words, ideas, findings, or methods without proper attribution. In simpler terms, it's stealing intellectual property within the scientific community.

Professional organizations may have varying definitions of plagiarism. While some define it strictly as copying words directly, others consider paraphrasing without proper citation to be plagiarism as well. This means unintentional mistakes, like forgetting to cite a source when paraphrasing, can still be considered a deceptive act.

Knowing how to properly cite sources is key to avoiding plagiarism, which is the unauthorized use of another's work. Plagiarism comes with serious repercussions, from failing grades and expulsion in school to damaged reputations and even legal action in professional settings.

Academic integrity is all about honesty, and that includes avoiding plagiarism. Most schools have clear policies outlining what constitutes plagiarism and the repercussions for violating them. It's crucial to familiarize yourself with your institution's code of conduct to ensure you're on the right track.

How to Spot Plagiarism: Three Key Signs

There are three main ways to identify plagiarism in writing:

  1. Sign #1: Overlapping Content

    The first sign of plagiarism is the presence of words or ideas in a new text that also exist in an earlier source. While it's technically possible to plagiarize by just copying ideas and rewriting them in different words, that's less common. In most cases, it's the similarity in language that raises suspicion. The closer the language between two pieces of writing, the more likely it is that plagiarism has occurred.

  2. Sign #2: Lack of Originality

    Plagiarism goes beyond just accidental similarities. The key here is whether the repeated content is substantial and unlikely to be a coincidence. The length of copied passages becomes a red flag. The longer the stretches of identical text between the new writing and the source, the more likely it is that plagiarism has occurred. Imagine two essays with large chunks of identical text — that's a clear sign something's wrong.

  3. Sign #3: Missing or Incorrect Attribution

    Even if content is borrowed from another source, proper credit is essential. Plagiarism occurs when the new text fails to acknowledge its connection to an earlier work. This can include not using quotation marks for direct quotes, paraphrasing without citing the source, or simply not mentioning the original author's ideas.

    However, what constitutes "good attribution" can vary. It depends on the intended audience and the specific style guide used in your field. For example, a research paper in science might require a different citation format than a blog post.

When to Give Credit in the Age of Copy-and-Paste

With information readily available online, the line between borrowing and stealing can seem blurry. How do you know when to cite a source and when you don't need to?

The general rule is to give credit whenever you use someone else's work as a source of ideas or inspiration. This includes:

  • Facts and figures you didn't know before (e.g., the population of Mars is zero)
  • Unique ideas or arguments presented by another person
  • Images, infographics, or creative works you find online

There are some exceptions, however. Common knowledge, like the fact that Christopher Columbus sailed the Atlantic in 1492, doesn't require citation. But here's the safe bet: if you're unsure whether something is common knowledge, err on the side of caution and cite it. The same goes for directly quoting someone's work. Reproduce it accurately and include a citation to avoid unintentional plagiarism. Following these practices will ensure your work is ethical and credible.

Why Instructors Want Your Own Words (and How to Achieve Them)

Always check your instructor's guidelines on citations and plagiarism. Many students worry their writing isn't as polished as professional sources they find. But remember, the point of using sources is to bolster your own ideas with outside evidence, not simply copy someone else's words. Instructors aren't looking for regurgitated information; they want to see your analysis and your voice.

Think of it this way: if they just wanted the original author's perspective, they wouldn't assign you a paper! This is a chance to develop your writing skills, including critical thinking and forming your own unique voice.

Here's why using your own words is essential:

  • Develops your writing skills: By paraphrasing and using your own language, you hone your writing style and critical thinking abilities.
  • Shows comprehension: Explaining ideas in your own words demonstrates that you truly understand the source material.

Avoids Plagiarism Traps:

Rushing can lead to plagiarism. When students feel pressed for time, they might resort to shortcuts that could land them in trouble. Proper research and writing take time, so plan your assignments well in advance.

Important Tips! 

If you feel overwhelmed by a source's language, take time to break it down. Summarize the main points in your own words, then use that understanding to build your argument. Remember, instructors value your unique perspective! Don't be afraid to express your own ideas using your own voice.

Why Knowing the Rules of Academic Integrity Matters

Colleges and universities take academic integrity very seriously, and for good reason. It protects the value of your degree and ensures everyone has a fair shot at success. That's why each school has its own policies outlining what constitutes plagiarism and other forms of cheating. These policies might be called "Academic Integrity," "Honor Code," or something similar.

These codes typically include:

  • Definitions of plagiarism and cheating: They explain what behaviors are considered dishonest.
  • Consequences for violations: This could include failing an assignment, failing a course, or even expulsion.
  • Procedures for addressing suspected plagiarism: This outlines the steps taken if an instructor suspects cheating.

Knowing these rules is crucial for your success. These codes are typically included in the school catalog and considered part of your enrollment agreement. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask your instructor or the dean's office for clarification.

What Happens When Plagiarism is Suspected?

If an instructor suspects plagiarism, they're obligated to follow a specific process. This might involve contacting you, submitting a report to the dean or a disciplinary committee, and potentially a hearing.

The potential consequences of plagiarism can be serious. You could fail the assignment or the entire course. Some institutions might require community service or other forms of restitution. In some cases, even a first-time offense can lead to expulsion.

Plagiarism is a major setback — it's embarrassing, costly, and delays your academic progress. But the good news? It's entirely preventable.

Don't Risk Your Future

Don't gamble with your academic career. Getting caught plagiarizing can have consequences far worse than a bad grade. If you're unprepared, it's better to receive a lower grade on an assignment than risk failing a whole course or even getting expelled.

Stack the odds in your favor. If you need help understanding a concept or properly citing sources, there are resources available. Talk to your instructor, visit the writing center, or use online plagiarism checkers (as a starting point, not a sole solution). Remember, a little effort now can save you a lot of trouble later.

10 Steps to Steer Clear of Plagiarism

Writing a great paper requires research, but it's important to avoid plagiarism. Here are twelve guidelines to ensure your work is original and properly credited:

  1. Own Your Words: This is the golden rule! Use your own language to express your ideas, even when referencing others.
  2. Plan and Research: Give yourself ample time to research and understand the topic. A rushed paper increases the risk of plagiarism.
  3. Source Savvy: Keep meticulous track of your sources, including author names, publication details, and URLs for online resources.
  4. Noteworthy Notes: Take clear and organized notes while researching. Distinguish your own thoughts from paraphrased material.
  5. Clear Attribution: When incorporating others' ideas, always indicate who said what. Use quotation marks for direct quotes.
  6. Citation Station: Master the art of proper citation! Follow your instructor's preferred style guide (e.g., MLA, APA).
  7. Quote Carefully: Use direct quotes sparingly and only for impactful passages.
  8. Paraphrase Power: When summarizing or paraphrasing, rephrase the information in your own words and cite the source.
  9. Avoid Patchwriting: Don't string together uncited quotes or paraphrases. Weave them into your own writing and analysis.
  10. Summarize Wisely: Summaries condense main points, but still require citation.
  11. Stay Original: Avoid using another student's work or resorting to "paper mills" that sell pre-written papers.

Remember: Avoiding plagiarism is about academic integrity and showcasing your own understanding. By following these steps and seeking help when needed, you'll be well on your way to writing a strong, original paper.

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  • References
    • Academic Writing and Plagiarism: A Linguistic Analysis, (Textual Plagiarism, pp 5-10) By Diane Pecorari
    • Quick Coach Guide to Avoiding Plagiarism with 2009 MLA and APA Update (“Defining Plagiarism” p 2-6) By Rosemarie Menager-Beeley, Lyn Paulos

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