Plagiarism is the theft of the ideas or writings of another person. A pretty clear-cut definition, right? Still, to many students, what exactly constitutes the practice of plagiarism is a little fuzzier. Most understand, for example, that the outright purchase of an academic paper is plagiarism. Most understand that to "borrow" a paper from a friend and pass it off as one's own (or to "loan" one for that purpose) is also dishonest. And most know they should place quotations marks around direct quotes and cite those sources. However, many students are not clear about the ethics of some of the most common practices constituting academic plagiarism. Many, for example, are not aware that the following also represent plagiarism:
Even though most student plagiarism is probably unintentional, it is in students' best interests to become aware that failing to give credit where it is due can have serious consequences. For example, at Butte College, a student caught in even one act of academic dishonesty may face one or more of the following actions by his instructor or the college:
Alarmed (or mystified)? Read on!
My paraphrasing is plagiarized?
Of course, phrases used unchanged from the source should appear in quotation marks with a citation. But even paraphrasing must be attributed to the source whence it came, since it represents the ideas and conclusions of another person. Furthermore, your paraphrasing should address not only the words but the form, or structure, of the statement. The example that follows rewords (uses synonyms) but does not restructure the original statement:
To study the challenge of increasing the food supply, reducing pollution, and encouraging economic growth, geographers must ask where and why a region's population is distributed as it is. Therefore, our study of human geography begins with a study of population (Rubenstein 37).
Inadequately paraphrased (word substitution only) and uncited:
To increase food supplies, ensure cleaner air and water, and promote a strong economy, researchers must understand where in a region people choose to live and why. So human geography researchers start by studying populations.
This writer reworded a two-sentence quote. That makes it his, right? Wrong. Word substitution does not make a sentence, much less an idea, yours. Even if it were attributed to the author, this rewording is not enough; paraphrasing requires that you change the sentence structure as well as the words. Either quote the passage directly, or
substantially change the original by incorporating the idea the sentences represent into your own claim:
Adequately, substantially paraphrased and cited:
As Rubenstein points out, distribution studies like the ones mentioned above are at the heart of human geography; they are an essential first step in planning and controlling development (37).
Perhaps the best way to avoid the error of inadequate paraphrasing is to know clearly what your own thesis is. Then, before using any source, ask yourself, "Does this idea support my thesis? How?" This, after all, is the only reason to use any material in your paper. If your thesis is unclear in your own mind, you are more likely to lean too heavily on the statements and ideas of others. However, the ideas you find in your sources may not replace your own well thought-out thesis.
Copy & paste is plagiarism?
Copy & paste plagiarism occurs when a student selects and copies material from Internet sources and then pastes it directly into a draft paper without proper attribution. Copy & paste plagiarism may be partly a result of middle school and high school instruction that is unclear or lax about plagiarism issues. In technology-rich U.S. classrooms, students are routinely taught how to copy & paste their research from Internet sources into word processing documents. Unfortunately, instruction and follow-up in how to properly attribute this borrowed material tends to be sparse. The fact is, pictures and text (like music files) posted on the Internet are the intellectual property of their creators. If the authors make their material available for your use, you must give them credit for creating it. If you do not, you are stealing.
How will my instructor know?
If you imagine your instructor will not know that you have plagiarized, imagine it at your own risk. Some schools subscribe to anti-plagiarism sites that compare submitted papers to vast online databases very quickly and return search results listing "hits" on phrases found to be unoriginal. Some instructors use other methods of searching online for suspicious phrases in order to locate source material for work they suspect may be plagiarized.
College instructors read hundreds of pages of published works every year. They know what is being written about their subject areas. At the same time, they read hundreds of pages of student-written papers. They know what student writing looks like. Writers, student or otherwise, do not usually stray far from their typical vocabulary and sentence structure, so if an instructor finds a phrase in your paper that does not "read" like the rest of the paper, he or she may become suspicious.
If you need reasons to cite beyond the mere avoidance of disciplinary consequences, consider the following:
How can I avoid plagiarism?
From the earliest stages of research, cultivate work habits that make accidental or lazy plagiarism less likely:
Rubenstein, James M. The Cultural Landscape: An Introduction to Human Geography. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education. 2003.