By S Nicholas
The Little, Brown Handbook (1986) defines plagiarism as “the presentation of some else’s ideas or words as your own; from the Latin word for kidnapper.” See what I did there? I let you know that I did not make up that definition. I gave credit to my source.
Many of the papers we edit at EditMyEnglish are related to Ph.D. programs. And in the Ph.D. world, plagiarism is a HUGE deal! Those caught plagiarizing will be kicked out of their programs of study. In extreme cases, legal action might ensue!
So how do you avoid plagiarism? As one of my high school teachers taught me, when writing a paper, almost every sentence should be cited. That’s right! Almost every sentence! The sentences not containing citation are your very own. They are your thoughts that link one source to another source.
Your own thoughts do not need to be cited. For example, “I do not like cold weather.” That doesn’t need to be cited because it is your opinion. Common information also does not need to be cited. For example, if you say, “Florida is hot in the summer,” that doesn’t need to be cited. Most people generally acknowledge that Florida is hot in the summer.
Additionally, if you state common information, such as that the French Revolution took place from 1789-1799, it does not need to be cited. That is historic information, generally accepted to be true.
However, if you write any thoughts another author has shared on a topic, you do need to cite it. Someone else’s independent material, material attributed to them, would be ideas not generally known (unlike the dates of a war, or temperatures of a specific region, which ARE generally known).
You cannot take an author’s idea and re-word it a little and call it your own. Any idea you get from someone else needs to be cited. It is perfectly acceptable to use other works within your paper. Just cite the sources! In fact, the more outside sources you have in your paper, the stronger your thesis will be! But…you HAVE to cite all your sources.
The best way to avoid plagiarism is to cite your sources OR paraphrase the author’s material. To paraphrase correctly, without plagiarizing, use your own words to rephrase what another person said. Wait. Doesn’t that seem to conflict the preceding paragraph? Let’s look at an example:
Original: John F. Kennedy said, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” That quote could be used in a paper, citing Kennedy as the original author of that quote, and using quotation marks. It would be perfectly acceptable to do it this way.
Plagiarism: I think that as citizens of this country, we should not ask what our country can do for us but rather, we should think about what we can do for our country. In this case, only a few words were changed, but the original intent of the original quote remained intact without citing a source. Therefore, it is plagiarism.
Paraphrasing: A famous man once suggested that we should consider how we might be of service to others, rather than waiting on others to serve us. In this case, an attribution was made to a source, the main idea of the original thought was left intact, but the way it was stated was changed.
The main concept to grasp when writing a paper is that you have to acknowledge where you got your ideas. It is illegal to take someone’s property for your own use; it is also illegal to take someone else’s words (intellectual property) and use them as your own.
I can usually spot plagiarism easily. If I’m working on a paper, heavily editing each paragraph, and then suddenly come across a perfect paragraph, my suspicions are raised. There are now computer programs for teachers to use to help spot plagiarism. When in doubt, either find a source to cite, or word your sentence in such a way that the reader has no doubt who had that thought.
Good students are typically conscientious, citing heavily, and using their own words to link between other authors’ words.