Avoiding Plagiarism: What Every Student Writer Must Know

We provide a legitimate service: we edit papers, we won’t write them for you.  At a substantive level, we can make suggestions, and often do, and as broadly-educated specialists in university writing in fields like your own, we are able to do so usefully in many cases where needed, but we cannot possibly (in fact, it is not possible) develop your ideas for you.  So we edit word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, etc., and we are experienced enough to be able to provide this kind of global service quite efficiently and cost-effectively.  Academic honesty is intellectual integrity and it starts with love: You should be writing about something you care about enough to be capable of enjoying the labor of developing ideas in writing.

Plagiarism, however, can be accidental.  Nonetheless, American colleges and universities tend to be quite unforgiving about it.  Here we describe the problem, and what can be done to avoid it.

What Every Student Writer Must Avoid at All Costs

It is important for every writer to know how to avoid plagiarism, which can be defined as academic dishonesty or the appearance thereof, usually committed as a result of carelessness in not properly using and crediting source material.  As Wayne Booth, et al.observe in The Craft of Research, “few researchers intentionally plagiarize,” and “most writers who plagiarize inadvertently do so because they took notes carelessly” (201).  Plagiarism can have very serious consequences, and it is something you definitely don’t ever want to be found guilty of, especially since whether you intended to cheat or not may very well not be the issue.

What is Plagiarism?

The MLA (Modern Language Association) Style Manual defines plagiarism as “using another person’s ideas or expressions in your writing without acknowledging the source….Forms of plagiarism include the failure to give appropriate acknowledgement when repeating another’s wording or particularly apt phrase, paraphrasing another’s argument, and presenting another’s line of thinking.” The simple rule for avoiding plagiarism is to document sources.  “You may certainly use other persons’ words and thoughts, but the borrowed material must not appear to be your own creation” (MLA, 2008, 165-66). This means you must indicate what you borrowed and where from. This is the purpose of footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical citations —whichever form you chose, or are required, to use.

Why is Plagiarism a Problem?  

  • Most people who commit plagiarism are not dishonest, and are not trying to cheat; they are merely careless in either their research or writing.  This is why it is so important to document sources correctly with footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical citations.
  • In many countries there is a different culture of borrowing, and copying without attribution is considered a legitimate scholarly activity; not so in, for example, the United States, where plagiarism is considered a very serious offense.
  • A third group of people who commit plagiarism consists of students who have been led to believe that the most important thing in their education is getting the best possible grade.  This is a mistake many honest students make, and it is also the reason why some people cheat.  Our advice is:

Avoid wherever possible thinking via argument by authority.  This is considered a logical fallacy.  The fact that someone, no matter who, says or this or that in itself always proves nothing.  It may of course suggest that the idea is worth considering, especially if the author cited is prestigious and likely to be known to many readers.  When a writer cites an authority, usually a published scholar, often one of repute in the field, with either a paraphrase of his/her idea on the matter at hand, or a useful and interesting quote.  Many scholarly writers even at fairly advanced levels do this.  It is consequence and cause alike of a certain intellectual laziness.  People do this because they want to support claims that are of some importance in their argument, by evidence, arguments, or further claims that seem to give this support.  Common rhetorical gestures are expressions like “As Famous-Scholar-Smith (200N) says (or shows, argues, points out, etc.), ‘When X is F, it is G.”  The problem is that the statements attributed to the cited authority are in fact only as credible as the argument given to support them.  Put it this way: If “God” himself had said that X is F, in a scholarly paper in a university context, that proves nothing, because it is a logical philosophy.  You can give the author’s reason in support of her or his claim, or give your own (making it clear what is yours and what the cited author’s), or just make your argument without reference to the author except to cite this author if he or she made this claim (or, ideally, was the first to make it) and that is how you came upon it.  An exception is when the quote is simply illustrative and makes a point you do argue for on your own but more precisely or elegantly.  But be careful.  For when you start confusing in your own mind your arguments and claims and evidence and those presented by some published authority, you are already on dangerous ground on true plagiarism may lie waiting around the corner, unnoticed.  

Some people willfully choose to use work that is not their own because they think it will get them what they need or want, such as a good grade.  Why is this a bad idea?

First, it very likely will not work, and is not worth the risk.  The problem with cheating in order to get a better grade is first of all it is way too risky — deliberate plagiarism can be easy to spot and if you are caught you are likely both to get an “F” and to be subject to campus disciplinary proceedings, which may well lead to being kicked out of school.

Secondly, it is a mistake to be grade conscious.  It undermines learning, takes away the fun, makes you anxious and thus less effective as a thinker and writer, and by taking you away from asking more interesting questions, it paradoxically tends to result in lower grades.

Writing is thinking, and writing a paper for a college or university course is a good opportunity to exercise and develop your capacity for original thought. We can help you by pointing out to you which parts of your argument are more effective and which less so, and what can be improved conceptually as well as stylistically.  That’s why we are much more than just grammar-checkers or proofreaders (which means many of the people advertising themselves as “editors”), who only catch the most basic errors.

Tips on How to Avoid Inadvertent Plagiarism

Start by choosing a topic you care about.  For better or worse, college and university students are not just doing a job that, like factory work, need or cannot be personally motivated and meaningful.  You are in a set or class of persons in this society and in the world who are privileged enough to be able in theory to do work that it is interesting, to themselves and hopefully others.  You will be much safer if you work from this existential position and not the more instrumental one of doing what is useful to get something you want.

Secondly, as mentioned, avoid in your thinking getting too cozy with authorities who may be presumed to know the truth of whatever matter you are discussing, and so whose opinions will, like divine oracles or prophetic testaments, give you the elements you need to build the edifice of your argument.  The world of ideas is egalitarian in that sense no person no matter who they are is any more right about anything than their arguments are sound and convincing.  And a scholarly essay is an argumentative essay, and stands and falls on the strength and eloquence of those arguments for the in some way controversial and so interesting (and potentially controversial because not already known to be true or even obviously so, and so of no real interest to read the details of) claim that you are arguing for.  We live in an hominem culture that often confuses reasons and persons.  Meaning that a thinker is no more interesting or right in what he or she has written than the propriety of his manners and morals in his life as a person.  In the sphere of political discussions about matters of common public concern, damning a person’s ideas by way of attacking their morals does work, at least in the United States.  But in the sphere of scholarly and scientific discourse it does not and cannot, because the implicit rules of the game are otherwise.  (I mean by this the logical and rhetorical practices and norms or rules that determine what kinds of arguments are and are not successful in making a convincing or plausible case for the truth of an asserted proposition (the “thesis statement” that, especially in English-language argumentative essays, the literary essay being somewhat different) that is the claim you are asserting, defending, and arguing for.)

Some useful practical techniques of citation and use of sources: 
Avoiding plagiarism involves more than just the recognition that you must document every phrase and every idea that comes from someone else.  It also requires knowing how to research and how to use to use texts.  For students and scholars desiring more information about how to avoid inadvertent plagiarism, the best discussion available maybe that in Wayne Booth et al., The Craft of Research (Booth, 2003, 201-204). Following are some tips gleaned from these pages in this excellent book, which every scholar should have:

  • Always “play it safe and credit the original as fully as possible” (204).
  • When you are taking notes while researching, immediately put in quotation marks everything that is taken word-for-word from a source, and
  • Immediately write down, along with your notes, the source for everything you read.
  • Don’t just borrow an author’s ideas and change the words, unless of course you credit the source.
  • Don’t paraphrase too closely.  A key test is whether or not with regard to the words in the paraphrase, “a careful reader can see that the writer could have written them only while simultaneously reading the original” (204).  If you are trying to summarize or paraphrase a passage from a text, it is best to read it carefully, take notes in your own words about what the passage is saying, and then put the text aside and summarize or paraphrase it from memory.

We can help because many inadvertent errors that entail plagiarism can be caught, and our job is to catch the mistakes you do make (and that every writer makes) while also helping you to polish your paper and make it not only grammatically flawless but also conceptually solid and stylistically engaging.  We also make suggested changes and comments that are presented in such a way that you can learn from them.  Students and scholars who work with us do get better results, and they also develop more as writers in the long run.

Sources

Booth, Wayne, Gregory C. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research, Second Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, Third Edition (New York: Modern Language Association of American, 2008).