By: Albert L. , Ph.D
With increasing frequency, colleges and universities are making use of Web-based plagiarism checking services to scan papers for stolen material. And the consequences can be dire: at one end of the spectrum, a failing grade for the assignment; at the other end, dismissal from an academic program.
If you are intentionally plagiarizing in your paper, thesis, or dissertation, this should give you pause. But if you are not intentionally plagiarizing, there could still be reason for concern. Plagiarism checking software catches an ever-growing amount of appropriated material--and sometimes the student has not even meant to do anything wrong! In what follows, I'd like to offer some simple tips for avoiding plagiarism of the unintentional variety.
1. Know what constitutes plagiarism. Simply put, plagiarism is the use of the words or ideas of another person without giving credit to the person from whom they are borrowed. Right off the bat, this tells us something important: you can't simply change a few words of a borrowed text (so that the passage is no longer a direct quotation) and think that you are out of danger. Unless the material is "common knowledge," a citation is needed for any material you borrow--whether it is a direction quotation, a paraphrase, or even just an idea.
2. Know what your professor will look for. Even before the advent of the computer, professors caught students who plagiarized; the Internet has just made it much, much easier. So what might give a clue to a professor that the material you've presented as your own really came from someone else?
- Fluctuations in style
- Vocabulary that isn't typical for you
- Harsh connections between passages
- Deviations in the point of view from which the text is written
- Contradictions in the theories or positions maintained in the paper
- The failure of the paper to address the specific topic assigned (suggesting it may have been borrowed or purchased)
- The unavailability in your university/college library of the sources referenced in the paper
- The use of exclusively Web-based sources
- Recognizing the material (Your professor is probably an expert in this field, after all!)
On its own, nothing on this list is a guarantee that material has been plagiarized. However, the combination of several of these points will certainly raise suspicions and will probably cause your professor to dig deeper.
3. Know how anti-plagiarism programs work. If your college, university, or professor is using a Web-based anti-plagiarism service, it's a good idea to know what the program searches for. If you're intentionally plagiarizing, chances are that you won't outsmart these programs; if you're not intentionally plagiarizing, understanding the programs will help you to avoid plagiarizing inadvertently. Anti-plagiarism programs currently in use do a combination of the following:
- Search the Internet for word strings that may have been lifted. The easiest way to get caught plagiarizing is to take something from a source available on the Internet. You will almost certainly get caught, as even the simplest and cheapest programs do this much.
- Search cached sources. Even if your source is no longer available on the Web, it may still be available to the anti-plagiarism search as long as it was on the Web at one time.
- Search databases of papers, theses, dissertations, articles, and books, usually comparing your paper against millions of archived sources. This means that even print sources that have never been available on the Internet may turn up in the search.
- Compare documents. This allows professors and universities to submit multiple papers (even over a number of years) to compare them for material that they share in common.
- Make internal comparisons. The more sophisticated programs use algorithms to examine sentence structure and synonyms, allowing them to catch even paraphrased material that has not been copied exactly.
4. Don't cut-and-paste. By definition, if you are doing this, you are borrowing material, and you're likely to leave clues (see tip #2, above). NOTE that this rule applies even to borrowing your own material from papers you've written previously. If you ignore this rule, then be sure to cite the source of whatever you've borrowed.
5. Don't paraphrase without citing the source. Yes, it's plagiarism even if you change the words. If it's someone else's idea, a citation is needed. Always.
6. Always use quotation marks (or block quote formatting) if you use someone else's words. No exceptions. Period.
7. Know your style sheet. Each academic style sheet (e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago, Turabian), has its own conventions for citing sources. If you don't follow the right conventions, you could inadvertently wind up being accused of stealing the material.
8. Beware of "common knowledge." This is the one big gray area--what really is "common knowledge"? If there's the slightest doubt in your mind, find the source and cite it. If you can't find the source, drop the material from your paper.
9. Get your work edited. Whether you rely on a professional editing service, a professor, someone from your college's writing center, or a really smart friend, a second set of eyes may catch what you missed, saving you a major hassle in the end.
10. When in doubt, cite it!
Wishing you success in your writing,
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