Simple Steps to Avoid Plagiarism: Guest Post from Richard A. Holland

noplagiarismSince I began my teaching career in 2008, it has been surprisingly often that one of my students submits a paper or other assignment that contains plagiarism. Many times, students plead ignorance – claiming that they didn’t know what plagiarism is or what they could do to avoid it. In response to this, I have continued to develop guidelines that I can present to students to help them. Usually, I present these guidelines before a major assignment is due, in hopes of avoiding uncomfortable confrontations after it is too late.

What follows is the kind of guidance that I typically present to my students; and this guidance has been shaped by my interaction with students, as they have asked questions and sought to have good understanding of the issue. If you are a student in an academic program, I hope you find this helpful.

Plagiarism occurs when someone presents the words or ideas of another author such that the reader of the paper may be misled to believe that those words or ideas are original to the student. Plagiarism includes (but is not limited to):

  • Insufficient attribution to the original source of any words or ideas from that source that are included in the student’s work.
  • Failing to enclose in quotation marks a sequence of exact words from another author.
  • Improper paraphrase that follows the exact (or nearly exact) structure, flow of thought, and ideas of another author.

Plagiarism can be either intentional or unintentional. Some students may not be aware of requirements for source attribution, and thus may be ignorant of what constitutes plagiarism. In such cases, the student may have inadvertently used another author’s words or ideas inappropriately, and thus may be guilty of unintentional plagiarism.

However, in most cases, unintentional plagiarism will be subject to the same academic penalties as intentional plagiarism. When it comes to plagiarism, you will be judged on what you have written, not on what you were thinking or what you intended.

What can you do to avoid plagiarism? Here are five simple guidelines…

  1. Always use an attributing phrase.

Whether paraphrasing or directly quoting an author, an “attributing phrase” is required in the text of the paper. The attributing phrase is the standard accepted method of giving credit to the person whose words and ideas are used in your paper. For a proper attributing phrase, you must name the person you are quoting / paraphrasing, and you must tell your reader what you are doing, using commonly accepted phrases. Some of the more common attributing phrases are…

“According to Jane Smith…”

“John Doe writes, …”

As you grow in your skill as a writer, you will be able to do this more creatively and fluidly. But until then, keep it simple. The most important consideration is making sure your reader knows that the words and / or ideas you are about to present come from another author’s work.

  1. Use quotation marks to enclose any exact sequence of another author’s words.

This is probably the most common-sense tip. It should be obvious that if you reproduce phrases or sentences from another author, you must enclose those phrases or sentences in quotation marks.

  1. Paraphrase only for concision or to increase clarity. Otherwise, quote.

The old advice, “Just put it in your own words,” is surely the WORST advice ever given to students. Let me be clear: If you take another author’s work and you simply restate it in your own words, you have committed plagiarism.

There are only two legitimate reasons to paraphrase another author: to present that author’s ideas in a more concise manner, so that you can be more efficient and judicious with your use of space; or to make a complex, complicated idea more clear to your reader. If you find yourself paraphrasing an author, and your paraphrase is not either much more concise or much more clear than the original, you are in the danger zone. Stop what you are doing and directly quote the author instead of trying to paraphrase.

Because the “put it in your own words” advice is so pervasive, I have had some push-back over the years on this one. If you are having a hard time believing me that paraphrasing can be plagiarism, and you need a “second opinion,” see the 8th edition of the Turabian style manual, sections 7.4 and 7.9; especially paragraph 7.9.2.

  1. Provide a proper source citation.

In addition to an attributing phrase, and quotation marks in the case of a quotation, you must cite your source. Whether your institution requires footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical references, use them wisely. Whatever formatting style you are following, make sure you include all the information necessary in your source citation for your reader to locate the original.

At a minimum, this will include the author’s name, the title of the work, the facts of publication, and a page number. If you are citing an electronic source that doesn’t have a traditional page number, then you must reference the location in a way that is stable – such as section headings.

  1. Use your outside sources for support, not for substance.

This one is a little more complicated, so I’ll devote more space for this one than I did with the previous four tips.

When you write a research paper, you should not simply report on what others have said about the topic. At the college level and beyond, you are expected to conduct your own original analysis of the topic, and then support your analysis through the judicious use of quotations and paraphrases from authoritative scholarly sources. The distinction is between using outside sources to support your own original analysis (which is what you should do), and using them to provide substance to your paper (which is what you should not do).

Another way to say it is this: 100% of the substantive content of every paper you write must be unique and original to you, and must not come from any outside source. Each paper you write should have an original thesis (main claim about the topic) that you developed based on your own ideas, and a unique arrangement of ideas and arguments.

Since a student is not an expert on the subject, they will quote authoritative experts for the purposes of providing “back up” – additional justification – on the main points being made in the paper. But the student should be writing the substance of the paper – not other authors. This has the obvious implication that there should be relatively few quotations (or paraphrases) from outside sources in the paper.

Here are some specific tips on using your sources for support (rather than substance) in your paper:

5.a. Do not weave another author’s sentence into the structure of your paragraph.

The following example is what NOT to do:

Academic honesty is a very important subject. “It is essential for students to avoid plagiarism.” [followed by source citation]

This is a very poor style (at best) because the second sentence is used as a substitute for the student’s own original sentence.  To make this correct, the student would need to revise the paragraph to include the appropriate introduction for the quotation (the following is the RIGHT WAY):

Academic honesty is a very important subject. Discussing this topic, John Smith highlights plagiarism. Smith writes, “It is essential for students to avoid plagiarism.” [followed by source citation]

The corrected version is appropriate, because it makes clear to the reader that the material used originates with John Smith, and because the student is the original author of each sentence.

5.b. Never present a ‘collection of quotations.’ 

Sometimes students have the urge to simply collect as many quotations as possible on the topic of their paper, and then join them all so that it all flows together. Assembling a collection of quotations is always inappropriate. Here is a “rule of thumb” given to me by the first Seminary professor I ever had: Your paper should be clear and coherent, even if you remove every quotation or paraphrase that you got from an outside source.

A footnote at the end of every sentence indicates that you are just collecting and assembling information from your sources. You should avoid this practice, and instead focus on offering your own original substance, supported with the judicious reference to authoritative soruces.

5.c. Do not depend on only one source for any substantive segment of your paper.    

The key sign of making this mistake is a long series of footnotes to the same author. This indicates that you are simply reporting to your reader what that one author has said. If you have several “Ibid’s” in a row, you need to change your approach. When you are presenting your own arguments designed to support your own original thesis, you will quite naturally avoid this mistake.

With those 5 guidelines in mind, I want to give you a suggested method for writing a paper that is 100% guaranteed to avoid the charge of plagiarism. If you follow these three easy steps to writing a paper, you will never be accused of committing plagiarism. This is just a suggestion; but it works!

STEP 1: Read as much as you can to learn about your topic. Find many authoritative, scholarly sources, read them carefully, and take good notes on the main ideas – but do not confuse your own notes with words or ideas that come directly from other authors. If you want to make note of an especially important quotation from a source you are reading, make sure you name the author, the title of the work, and the page number – and be sure to enclose the author’s words in quotation marks. As you read, begin to think through the most important issues related to your topic; and try to arrive at your thesis: Now that you have identified the issue, what claim will you make about the topic? How will you support your main claim? What points of argument should you use to make your case?

STEP 2: Put away all the books and articles you have found. Use only your notes – do not use – or even look at – anything written by another author. Write your paper so that it is 100% complete from start to finish. Craft a well-written introduction (which will include your thesis); structure the body of the paper so that it clearly presents the key points that support your thesis; and write a concise conclusion that recaps the main point of your thesis. Your paper needs to be complete, clear, and coherent without any words or ideas from other authors. It may be quite short at this stage of the process; but it should still be complete, clear, and coherent.

STEP 3: After your paper is finished, go through each element of your argument carefully. Go back through your previous research to find authoritative, scholarly sources that address the elements of your argument. Insert into your paper quotations from relevant authors that will provide justification for the points you have made. Make sure you introduce each quotation properly with a good attributing phrase; use quotation marks; and document each source carefully following the requirements of the style manual used by your institution. If you want to paraphrase instead of quote, make sure you introduce the paraphrased material properly, and include proper citation references.

Richard A. Holland, Jr. is Assistant Professor of Apologetics and Theology at Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of
God, Time, and the Incarnation and blogs at Befriending Wisdom.

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