How to avoid plagiarism by properly documenting your sources

A web search using the term plagiarism invariably turns up citations of articles and postings from educational websites about plagiarism and students, particularly how and why it should be avoided.

But plagiarism is not an issue for students alone. If you amend the search to “plagiarism and famous writers,” a dozen articles surface discussing many well-known authors who have been accused of using another writer’s work. Occasionally the cases were dismissed or unproved, but in others, the principals have settled out of court or the plagiarizing writer has apologized or revised the content in question.

Accused authors have sometimes claimed that the copying was unintentional or inadvertent; they have blamed it on carelessness or poor note taking skills. Some authors have even self-plagiarized, borrowing or recycling writing from their own earlier pieces out of laziness.

If the plagiarism is not based on outright stealing of another’s work, then improper attribution and documentation can be a cause. Without proper documentation, authors can be charged with plagiarism – trying to pass off someone’s work or research as their own – even if it was unintentional.

Problems related to research and documentation appear in the new Top Twenty list, but these did not appear in the earlier 1986 Twenty Most Common Errors list.  In fact, missing or incomplete documentation error appears as number 3 on the later list. The difference is attributed to the change in the type of writing students are doing now versus then. Earlier, students were writing personal narratives or were doing close readings of a literary text. Today, however, students apparently are writing more research-based essays and arguments, which demand at least some use of sources. Thus, there seems to be a correspondingly increase in errors related to the use of those sources.

Careful note taking is crucial when consulting and using the work of others. It is even important to document where ideas come from, even if you are not using any other information from your sources. The preferred method is to consult your source and then to paraphrase or summarize in your own words what it is that you have learned or have taken away from the material. With this method, you not only absorb the information, but show true comprehension.

Since a great deal of information can now be accessed electronically, it is easy to cut and paste large amounts of texts even if it’s just in an effort to save time. If you do copy text to be reviewed or assimilated later, keep clear records of your sources. You should also put it in quotation marks to show that it is in the original author’s words, and not your own.

Indeed, quoting another work in your writing should be done judiciously, when the quote is memorable and it can’t easily be improved by restatement. Be careful of quoting an extensive sections of a source. Too often I have seen both student and adult writers simply string together a series of quotes without synthesizing the material. (Poorly integrating quotes into writing is another new Top Twenty error that we’ll discuss in a future post.)

It is not required to document information or ideas, such as biographical facts or historical dates, that are considered common knowledge. However, if you use a source, even if you give a definition which seems to be “universal” or generally understood, but it comes from a source – reference or otherwise – you need to cite the source, and put it in quotation marks if a direct quote. If you restate or include information that makes a specific, arguable claim, the source should be identified.

How you document the source will depend on your field or discipline, but whether it’s writing for academic or research or other non-fiction projects, you need to cite your sources to avoid plagiarism.  Guides to citation are available in most style manuals and resources, including online ones. For instance, the Modern Language Association has great resources with examples of what plagiarism looks like. (It also has an online interactive practice template for putting your citation in the appropriate format.)

Plagiarism does not involve just nonfiction writers; in fact, many of the notorious cases are of fiction writers.  The familiar saying, “good writers borrow, great writers steal,” is usually attributed to the writer T.S. Eliot.  However, what Eliot actually said is “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different” (The Sacred Wood 1921).

There are cases where writers have stolen ideas, passages, even whole works from other authors and passed them off as their own. But writers are also readers—how often have you heard the advice that if you want to write, you should read a lot? 

Being immersed in someone else’s writing can cause you to copy it, even if unintentionally. For instance, a large part of British and American literature of previous centuries often references or echoes or alludes to the Christian bible, particularly the King James Version, because it was a mainstay when those societies were more religious than our more secular times. People absorbed its stories and lessons, as well as its language and rhythms and cadences, and these worked their way into their writing.

Indeed, a common strategy for beginning writers is not only to read a lot, but to study and copy their favorite authors’ style and construction. While this can be helpful in learning such techniques as plotting and language use, the danger lies in copying it too much – becoming a copyist and not finding your own voice. Free writing will help you find your voice. Other types of journaling, for instance an image journal, will help you get in touch with what interests you and help you explore issues in own voice.

Every writer has something to say. If it has been said before or said better, it’s important for you to find your own take and style for it. That has value, just as there is value – intellectual and creative property rights – in work that has already been produced. There are guidelines for copyright and fair use of material, so that using anything by anyone else, even lyrics from a song, music from album, or material from book, requires not only attribution but permission, and it sometimes involves compensation. Being conscious of where your ideas and prose comes from, and documenting the sources if not your own, is a responsibility for all writers.

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