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Plagiarism, How to Avoid It

Plagiarism: How to Avoid It

Oct 13, 2012 - Posted to  Writing in General
Plagiarism. It's not a very pretty word, is it? Even uglier is to find out that you've been accused of it.
While not illegal, stealing another person's work (and that's what plagiarism is) and passing it off as your own - whether deliberate or accidentally - is not only professionally unethical, it also violates academic code. Plagiarism is therefore different then copyright infringement. However, while it's not illegal, plagiarism could result in severe penalties and disciplinary action - not to mention the effect it could have on one's reputation.
Of course, it is totally acceptable to reference another author's thoughts and words in your own writing as long as you properly acknowledge that those thoughts or ideas were not your own. The bottom line is that you must credit your source if you use another person's words or ideas in your papers. Not doing so is literary theft.
So how do you differentiate what needs to be acknowledged from what doesn't? First, let's deal with the easier aspect - what does not need to be acknowledged in your academic paper (essay, research paper, term paper, coursework, etc.): your own thoughts, ideas, and observations, stated in your own words. (Note, however, that it is possible to self-plagiarize, which means to re-use your previous work without significantly changing the wording or ideas and without properly acknowledging it.) Also, common knowledge - which is standard, common-sense information - generally does not require acknowledgement.
Other than your independent material and common knowledge, any words of ideas that you directly quote, summarize, and/or paraphrase, need to be properly acknowledged to avoid plagiarism.

Using a Direct Quotation

In terms of understanding how it relates to plagiarism, directly quoting a work is the most straightforward. Typically, you would use this technique when you are using another author's words to illustrate one of your own points.
Besides being sure to use the author's exact words and mechanics as they appear in the original piece, you should utilize signal words to show that a quote will soon follow, and then use quotation marks around the author's words:
Although fishing season opens in early April, Holder admits "until late May the water is very difficult to fish" (291).
Notice in the above example that the words "Holder admits" serve to signal that a direct quotation will follow. Also note that the quotation marks surround only the words being quoted (and no other words), and that the page number in parentheses follows directly after the quote but comes before the ending punctuation, which is proper MLA format for citing a source within the text when the Author's name is mentioned. (A properly formatted "works cited" list would then accompany the paper.)

Summarizing and Paraphrasing

When you use another author's words or ideas, and you condense, reduce, or make more succinct - in other words, summarize - those words or ideas, you must acknowledge that they are not your own.
Paraphrasing is not the same as summarizing. To paraphrase essentially means to restate the words while still keeping the same meaning. The ideas and presentation stay pretty much the same, but you put them into your own words. The key to accurately paraphrasing someone else's work is that you understand and do not alter the meaning.
Both summarizing and paraphrasing require special handling in your paper so that you can avoid plagiarism.
As with direct quotations, summarizing and paraphrasing requires that you cite your source and also that you use quotation marks around the author's original words (if you are not using your own words).
Here is a direct quote from page 10 of Jack Holder's Secrets of Sierra Fishing:
"Early season strikes are usually on the red and orange colors, whereas the yellows, chartreuses, and fire tiger patterns do best in the summer."
And here is an example of how one might paraphrase it, along with the proper in-text citation method (MLA style):
Holder explains that brighter colors are effective for "early season strikes" and that different colors become necessary as the season changes (10).
In the above example, note that the words "Holder explains" are signal words, and that "early season strikes" are set apart with quotation marks, since they are the original author's exact words. Also note that only the page number (in parentheses) follows the paraphrased information, since the author's name is already given in the text. Again, a properly formatted "works cited" list with all necessary bibliographical information for the paraphrased text would need to accompany this paper.

The Internet and Plagiarism

This is another instance where the Internet is both a blessing and a curse. While it's a wealth of information, for many students it also makes "borrowing" someone else's words or ideas that much more tempting.
It's not always easy to locate the source information from online resources, not to mention the fact that the information you pull from online to use in your paper may change or even be removed. Compounding these difficulties is the fact that the information you're citing may have itself been "borrowed" from someone else, without having properly been acknowledged.
Still, you can (and should) consider the Internet as a worthwhile source of information, and citing Internet resources is not so different than traditional source documentation. Be sure to record the source's URL and the title of the page you are referencing (usually found at the top of your browser window). Try to locate any publication information, including the author's name and date of publication (which may sometimes be found on the site's home page). Be sure to note the date when you accessed the information, too.
Although the above information will help you avoid plagiarism in your papers, also keep in mind that acknowledging your sources really begins during the early stages of the writing process. When you are conducting research - whether you are writing notes down longhand, doing copy-and-paste collecting from the Internet, or pulling information from traditional hard-copy sources - you must be certain to carefully transcribe and document all the content - as well as the bibliographic information you'll later need to properly credit your sources. Remember, whether it is deliberate or accidental, plagiarism should be avoided at all cost.
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