Avoiding Plagiarism

Hopefully, itís clear by now that many cases of plagiarism are unintentional. They might be instances of what Rebecca Moore Howard calls "patchwriting" or perhaps simply inadequate citation. Good research habits, like the ones described in this document, can help guard against unintentional plagiarism.

Itís helpful to keep in mind that avoiding plagiarism means learning to operate within a set of academic conventions. Academic citation is not a rule set in stone. It is instead a group of rules which were developed so that writers could give each other credit when making use of each otherís words and ideas. Like any set of rules, the conventions of citation are evolving. Your job is to understand what the rules are in your specific context (an English literature classroom? a biology classroom? a workplace where you are engaged in service learning?) at the present time. Always consult with the person who has assigned your research project or is overseeing it. This is your best source of information on learning the conventions of citation that are most appropriate to your situation.

Learning these rules and enacting them appropriately is one of your responsibilities as a member of an academic or writing community. Even if you plagiarize unintentionally, the penalties for plagiarism-which can be very severe-still apply to you.

Intentional Plagiarism and Academic Integrity

In some cases, a writer plagiarizes intentionally. This is the simplest kind of plagiarism to explain, because it is simply fraud. A writer may represent someone elseís thought or idea as his own by including direct quotations without attribution, or, in some cases, a writer may obtain an entire paper from another source and turn it in as her own.

Ethical researchers must acknowledge their sources, because writers and readers depend upon one anotherís honesty. To use someone elseís words or ideas without sufficient acknowledgment breaks that trust. Writers in academia are interdependent. That is, each of us depends on everyone else to help uphold the integrity of the group. Every person engaged in academic writing, from the first-time research writer to the seasoned professor, shares this responsibility. For this reason, the penalties for an academic writer who fails to practice academic integrity are severe.

Penalties for Plagiarism

The penalties for plagiarism vary among institutions, and sometimes among departments or classes within an institution. Generally, penalties can include a failing grade for the paper in question, a failing grade for the course, academic suspension, or expulsion. The record of having plagiarized will generally stay in a studentís file permanently. In the fall of 2002, a widespread plagiarism investigation at the University of Virginia resulted in the expulsion of forty-five undergraduates and the retraction of three graduate degrees. In some cases, there can possibly be legal, as well as academic, consequences.

Detection of Plagiarism

Whether intentional or unintentional, plagiarized work can often be detected by instructors. The Internet has made it possible to search Web sites, periodical databases, and libraries all over the country with speed and ease. Search engines such as Google can call up specific words and phrases, making it easier to locate the source of plagiarized papers or patchwriting. In other words, although it is becoming increasingly easier to obtain research materials (for honest and dishonest purposes) on the Internet, it is also easier for instructors to trace those materials.

Software, such as EVE2, SafeAssign (formerly MyDropBox), or Glatt Plagiarism Program, has been developed to assist instructors in detecting plagiarism. These applications work in various ways. They may search the Web, or they may study the paper itself, using tests to see whether the student writer understands and can replicate what he turned in.

An instructor may or may not use special software. Itís more likely that she may suspect plagiarism because a paper simply doesnít sound right. Most instructors who assign and read a substantial amount of writing get to know their studentsí voices. A paper that comes from or uses language from another source tends to be easily noticed.

The Future of Academic Research

More and more, instructors are assigning research projects in ways that make it difficult to plagiarize-both intentionally and unintentionally. For example, they will often work with students through the development of a research project, consulting about sources, reading early drafts, and teaching skills such as appropriate summarizing and paraphrasing. When instructors engage with students throughout a research project, plagiarism becomes much less likely. Unintentional plagiarism can be discovered and addressed, and intentional plagiarism becomes simply not worth the trouble.

These sorts of strategies make it more likely that students will engage in original investigations, pursue questions that they find genuinely interesting, and do the work not simply to "get it done," but to find new knowledge. After all, thatís what research is all about.