Avoiding plagiarism

Plagiarism is a serious academic offense and can result in your expulsion from college. It’s crucial, then, that students understand what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it.

First, it’s important to note that every student has an individual responsibility to do some research into plagiarism and to understand the limits of what is acceptable. As always, ignorance of the rules is no excuse for breaking them.

According to Colorado State University,

Plagiarism includes the copying of language, structure, images, ideas, or thoughts of others and is related only to work submitted for credit.

That’s a definition that most students will find familiar. But it’s a very general statement, and doesn’t offer much clarity regarding what specific acts might constitute plagiarism.

Thankfully, the Internet offers up some fantastic guides to help students understand plagiarism in more detail. You should read one or two of them and familiarize yourself with what’s allowed and what’s not.

If you do, you’ll quickly find out that, contrary to what you might have thought, there are actually several different types of plagiarism. This often comes as a surprise to students, many of whom think that plagiarism is synonymous with copying somebody else’s work.

In fact, word-for-word pilfering of text is only one form of plagiarism. Other types include the failure to cite properly, the re-submission of work that you produced for a different class, and even the honest attempt to rewrite someone else’s ideas in your own words. Each of these can be serious wrongdoings if you’re not careful.

Fortunately, there are things that you can do to lessen your chances of failing foul of plagiarism rules. Knowing what those rules are is the all-important first step, but the second step must be a serious commitment to learning how to cite properly.

Here’s the thing. It’s perfectly acceptable to borrow ideas and language from other people—including entire sentences—so long as you reference your sources in the correct way. Nobody will criticize you for citing other people. On the contrary, it’s an integral part of academic writing. You’re supposed to do it. And so viewed in this light, plagiarism is actually quite unnecessary (unless you’re hellbent on cheating, that is).

How much should you cite? Well, you must cite whenever you take an idea, words, or phrasing from another place. If you are borrowing a very general idea from another person, then it may be acceptable to cite them without giving a page number. Your job is simply to disclose the authored work (the book or article) that you’ve learnt from.

But if you’re lifting a specific point from somebody else’s work—and especially if you’re using an exact quote or even a paraphrase—then you must include a page number along with your citation so that you are being fully transparent about your sources. And remember, if you copy exact words or quotes from somebody else’s writing, then these must be placed in quotation marks to indicate that they are not your own words.

The only exception to these rules is that you do not need to cite so-called “common knowledge,” defined as “information generally known to an educated reader, such as widely known facts and dates, and, more rarely, ideas or language.”

It’s not necessary to provide a citation for the fact that the American Revolution began in 1776, for example, or that gravity pulls objects towards the ground. But if you’re unsure about what constitutes common knowledge, and if you did in fact learn something from a particular source, it’s usually a good idea to provide a citation just in case.

Citing sources is thus an incredibly important part of avoiding plagiarism. It’s how you’re able to borrow from other peoples’ work while still keeping within the rules. So how do you go about citing sources? Are there rules that need to be followed?

In short: yes, there are rules to citations. At a very basic level, correct citations are those that give readers all of the bibliographical information that they would need to check somebody else’s sources: the title of the work in question, the author’s full name, date, publisher, and so on. But you can’t just present this information however you like. There are codified and agreed upon “styles” of citation that mandate how you must go about it.

You might already have heard of some of these styles: Chicago Style, MLA, or APA, for example. But do you know how to use any of them correctly? In truth, few students do. I see a lot of papers that mash together two or more citation styles in order to create some sort of hideous Frankenstein way of referencing. Or even worse, students sometimes invent their own unique method for citing sources!

Really, there is no excuse for incorrect citations. Failure to cite properly can be considered a form of plagiarism and so you have a strong incentive to click on the above links and do some research into the various citation styles. You have to be consistent in how you present your references or else you might omit key details and inadvertently mislead your reader. It’s just not worth the risk.

So next time you’re preparing a paper, take a few moments to consider these points about plagiarism and citations. Are you using other peoples’ ideas, words, or phrasing? If so, how should you go about giving attribution? There are right and wrong answers to these questions – they are not matters of subjective opinion – so be sure to get them right.

If in doubt, it’s fine to check with your instructor. They will be able to tell you what citation style they prefer, and whether something can be considered “common knowledge” for the purposes of their class, for example.

But as noted above, avoiding plagiarism is a responsibility that rests on your shoulders. There are ample resources to help you in your endeavors, but the buck will always stop with you.


Other posts in this series:

Writing professional emails, 4 April 2017
Strong writing skills aren’t optional, 28 March 2017
Writing a great introduction, 21 March 2017
What good in-class participation looks like, 7 March 2017
Credible sources: Who to trust when doing research papers, 28 February 2017
How to study for an exam, 21 February 2017
“Showing up” to college: What choosing to succeed looks like
, 14 February 2017
Taking notes, part two: What should you write down?, 9 February 2017
Taking notes, part one: In defense of pen and paper
, 7 February 2017
How to manage your time effectively in college, 31 January 2017
How to get the most out of office hours, 24 January 2017
College is a team sport
, 17 January 2017