Plagiarism: Definition, Policy and Warning

“I’d rather be caught holding up a bank
than stealing so much as a two-word phrase from another writer;
but … when someone has the wit to coin a useful word,
it ought to be acclaimed and broadcast or it will perish.”
— Jack Smith

Definition: Plagiarism is the use of the words or ideas of another person without proper acknowledgement.

Policy: Plagiarism is intellectual theft: it is not acceptable in any endeavor, but in an educational setting it is particularly repugnant.

Warning: Plagiarism in my courses will be punished.

It’s simple. Anytime you copy words into your own work, you must acknowledge the source of those words. Anytime you use someone else’s ideas, you must admit it. Anytime you adapt material for your own assignments, it must clearly be different from the original; the final version must be really yours.

The point of assignments, whether small homeworks or term papers, is learning, and you must do the work yourself in order to learn anything useful. Stealing words or ideas is a waste of time, both yours and your professors’. Sources which must be acknowledged include books and journal articles, of course, but also your course texts, the news, lectures, and anything found on the Internet.

How you acknowledge your intellectual debt is not as important as whether you have clearly and fully documented your borrowings. (The standard in History is the Chicago Manual of Style method of footnotes, but I’ll usually accept anything that includes clearly identified source and page number.) The reader must be able to tell the difference between your work and those of your sources. Anything less than full disclosure, anything less than absolute clarity in distinction between your work and borrowed material, is plagiarism.

Plagiarism is bad. There are three main sources of plagiarism, but each of them can be avoided with a little care and effort:

I. The worst, of course, is pure dishonesty, the intentional misrepresentation of ideas or words as one’s own. This may be the result of panic caused by leaving assignments to the last minute, but sometimes it is the result of laziness and concern for high grades over honest work. The solution is simple: don’t leave assignments to the last minute; trust that your professor will value your work and ideas enough that you don’t have to steal to earn good grades; take your classes and assignments seriously.

II. Bad notetaking and writing can easily result in unintentional plagiarism. It is very easy, with the Internet, scanners, and word processing software, to copy huge chunks of published material into your notes, and in the process of doing an assignment mistakenly include someone else’s work along with your own. It is important to carefully record where you get material, and be very clear in your notes as to what are direct quotes (i.e. copied) and what is paraphrased (i.e. your own words).

Paraphrasing is an important writing technique that, if not handled properly, can result in plagiarism: when adapting another author’s ideas and words, you must put them into your own words. Changing a few words here and there, shifting the order of phrases, or the tense of a sentence does not constitute adequate paraphrasing. True paraphrasing is the clear expression in your own words of another author’s ideas. I was taught that anything over three words in a row (Jack Smith, above, says two) that is the same between the original and your writing should be in quotation marks. The idea must be recognizable, but the writing must be clearly different.

III. Lack of experience using sources is a common source of plagiarism. If you are not sure of the expectations of a particular professor or discipline or assignment, ASK! Reference librarians love these kinds of questions; the Writing Center lives for this stuff; your professor would much rather explain things correctly than catch you doing something wrong. Before you start a new kind of writing, whether it is poetry, short stories, term papers or book reviews, you should read some examples of good writing, and perhaps even a writing guide.

When in doubt, cite your sources.

If I see plagiarism, it will be punished. Depending on the specific case, punishments may range from loss of credit for an assignment, failure for the course, suspension or other sanctions. For more specifics, see the University Catalog, under “Dishonesty in Academic Work”

© 2002-2008 — Jonathan Dresner