Understanding and avoiding plagiarism
There is a lot of talk in classrooms, among professors, and in the academy in general about plagiarism. Chances are that the topic is addressed in most classrooms at the beginning of the semester or discussed in the syllabus for the class. However, it remains hard for some students to understand exactly what plagiarism is.
Queens College writes about plagiarism as being part of “academic dishonesty.” It says:
Academic dishonesty is one of the most serious offenses within the academic community. Acts of academic dishonesty include, but are not limited to, plagiarism and/or cheating on exams and papers, sabotage of research materials, the purchase or sale of academic papers, and the falsification of records. Any student who engages in an activity that is academically dishonest is subject to disciplinary charges, as is any students who knowingly aids another who engages in them.
When completing writing assignments, copying, lifting, or slightly altering things that other people have written without giving the proper credit is stealing somebody else’s work. Now most students would never shoplift, steal from the office that they work in, take from the cash register at their after-school job, or in other ways make themselves into criminals. But they might, without realizing the similarity, copy somebody’s work from the internet, a book, Wikipedia and so on. On the surface, the two actions might not have much to do with each other but, in essence, plagiarism is taking credit for something that is not rightfully yours.
The reason why plagiarism can be hard to understand is that as thinkers and writers we are constantly in a dialogue with other thinkers and writers. This is completely legitimate! That is the only way we can develop our fields of study; in fact, it is the purpose of our common struggle. To participate in this dialogue about our fields of study is what your professors want you to do, but only if you give proper credit to any other source that has given you ideas, or from which you are quoting or paraphrasing (see Citation and Paraphrasing). Basically, in your writing they want your own ideas, your analysis, your criticism of some material and not somebody else’s. The way to participate in this dialogue is to make sure you write your own papers, keep track of your own thinking, and don’t borrow somebody else’s idea uncritically and without referencing it.
In some cultures and educational systems, students are taught to mimic or even quote the works and thoughts of other more advanced writers without questioning the works or asserting their own critical voice. This is not the case in American colleges and universities. It is expected of students that they present themselves as authors and do their own critical analysis. At times this is a scary experience. The pressure to arrive at the right conclusion at times overshadows the gains made in making an independent argument, and it is often in situations of intense pressure that the student regresses to plagiarizing. Don’t let your fear of being mistaken lead you to being academically dishonest. Professors would much rather get a sense of your struggle than a polished paper that does not belong to you. And remember that, in the United States, plagiarism is considered academic dishonesty and can even be cause for dismissal from the College.
Finally, remember that if you can find it online, chances are your professor can too!