Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism

As John Donne has coined, no man is an island.  Another (less-poetic) truth is as follows: no man should steal another island’s hard-earned resources to make their island look a little better.   Plagiarism is when an author uses someone else’s ideas or research in excess and/or doesn’t properly cite the source to give them credit.  This post will review (1) why plagiarism is a violation of integrity, (2) self-plagiarism, (3) the differences between quoting, summarizing, and paraphrasing, and (4) some guidelines to avoid plagiarism.

Why Plagiarism is a (Far-too-Easy) Violation of Integrity

I remember the first time that a teacher asked me to submit a paper to is a website that detects plagiarism when a paper is submitted, checking to see if there is dishonest use of outside sources without proper citation to give them credit.  As I wrote, I felt anxious as I paid special attention to how I took notes from sources and used these ideas in a research paper.  I realized that before this experience, I was too lax with using sources and not inserting enough internal citations.

Though I’ve never copied and pasted for an assignment, it’s far too easy to read something, glean ideas from it, and then be negligent in writing the source in connection to the written idea.  The majority of students don’t particularly enjoy in the time it takes to create a bibliography or works cited page, go through and figure out which ideas came from what source, and internally cite them…not to mention the strict citation methods that specify when and where to use a period or semicolon.  This laziness or even pure ignorance of how to correctly cite a source can result in unintentional plagiarism.

BYU’s Academic Honesty Policy clearly states that plagiarism, whether it is intentional or inadvertent, is in direct violation of academic integrity and honesty.  All students have access to resources that explicitly state how to cite resources in writing, and have likely taken classes that taught about proper citation and avoiding plagiarism.  When someone publishes or submits writing, it is expected to be their own.  Copying and pasting or replacing a couple of words means that the writer put significantly less thought and effort into the writing process, and true learning is highly unlikely.

Self-Plagiarism: Yes, it’s a Thing.  

London’s Global University defines student plagiarism as “ the presentation of another person’s thoughts or words or artefacts or software as though they were a student’s own.”  Using this definition of plagiarism, the term “self-plagiarism” appears contradictory.  The word itself implies that a “self-plagiarizer” presents their own words as their own… well, yeah!  Isn’t that the point of writing?  Delving into the definition of self plagiarism, we find that it includes the use of one’s previous work in a different paper or publication.

In my high school, this was a common problem.  Teachers would sometimes allow students to choose their own topics, and students rejoiced in this opportunity to select a topic that is equal or very similar to a past research paper.  They tweaked it a little bit, but used most of the content and sources from the already-completed paper.  I remember I felt palpable tension in my lunch group when one of my friends did this proudly, when the rest of us had spent many hours doing research, writing and editing.

Professional publications are available to the public or a professional community, so self-plagiarism can be easily detected.  People frown upon it because it implies laziness and dishonesty.  If university professors are expected to publish a set amount of research each year, it may be tempting for them to take pieces—even slivers—of their research that is published already, and insert them in a new publication.  The objective of research is to use ideas and data to discover or explore something new, and plagiarism directly contradicts that objective.

In schools, self-plagiarism is addressed because the purpose of a research paper or assignment is to challenge the student to learn about the subject and present it in an original way.  The idea of progression in education is hindered by the notion that students can just copy and paste their past work and receive the same grade as a student who started from scratch.  Community fairness plays a role in this thinking.  The policies that universities have against self-plagiarism are justified because all students should be expected to start research from the beginning and go through the process of forming new ideas, drafting, and editing.  To skip these steps and simply use previously completed and submitted work, even if it’s the author’s own writing, is dishonest.

Quoting, Summarizing, and Paraphrasing

The Purdue Online Writing Lab (more commonly known as OWL), provides resources for writers and is especially well-known for its style guides, which provide the “how to”, “where to”, and “what to” for citations.  One of their webpages describes the difference between quoting, paraphrasing and summarizing.  Quoting is the easiest to distinguish from the other two; quotations cite the author, should not be too lengthy, and the wording is identical to the source.  Page numbers are used in the citation to reference the exact location of a quote.

In both paraphrasing and summarizing, ideas are connected to their original source.  The source’s information is entirely in the author’s own language—this does not mean just changing a couple of words, or looking up synonyms in a thesaurus to replace key words.  The ideas are used, but the language to express them is completely original.  What distinguishes summarizing from paraphrasing is that summarizing highlights only the main points of an article and captures the most important concepts.  Paraphrasing is usually shorter than its shorter than its source, but may state content from a different perspective or with another objective.


Guidelines: How can I Avoid Plagiarism?

Everyone benefits from sharing ideas and information; collaboration via technology, print, or face-to-face communication is crucial in education because we all have different background experience, knowledge talents, and careers.  If we had no way to communicate our unique ideas, the world would be one-dimensional and progress would slow down drastically.

However, if each researcher or student only used ideas and phrases that have been published by past authors, progress would still slow down.  When something is published with an author’s name, the readers assume that it only contains the author’s ideas and writing, and that citations would clearly indicate where outside sources were used.  Still, these outside ideas should be minimally used, to spur new thought and interpretation of those ideas.  If an idea was sparked by someone else’s published work or research, it is dishonest to claim it as your own.


2 thoughts on “Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism

  1. I like what you said about self-plagiarism. About expectations: I think if someone is expected to have a certain amount of research and new material that would tempt them to plagiarize or self-plagiarize, then the expectations need to be lowered. Creating something new is hard work and the “crank it out” industrial mindset is irrelevant and hinders artists performing at their best.
    The cartoon you included was great!

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