What is Considered Plagiarism and How to Avoid It?

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Students often encounter the term plagiarism as part of their school or university's academic honesty policy. The word might also be referenced in a course syllabus, or perhaps be covered by an instructor or librarian during a class session.

Plagiarism is usually couched in strong language about the seriousness of the offense. To plagiarize, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, means "to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own" and "to commit literary theft" by failing to acknowledge or cite source material.

Stealing, cheating, duplicating, misattributing, copying and pasting, poorly paraphrasing, sloppily summarizing, committing fraud-plagiarism by any other name is still plagiarism, right? But what's considered plagiarism is often more nuanced, especially with the surrounding issues of ownership, context, and the legitimacy of information. "Think of Google Books posting entire pages and chapters online, YouTube hosting music and movies, or sites copying and cross-posting content from other sites," said Brian Ryckman, eLearning Librarian at Southern New Hampshire University.

As a librarian, Ryckman works with students on a daily basis to address concerns about researching, using, and citing information. The majority of questions he receives are about how to cite sources correctly, followed by when to cite. Below are answers to such questions as well as other things you should know about the topic, including some ways to avoid plagiarism.

There are many kinds of plagiarism

The Plagiarism Spectrum is a continuum of ten common types of plagiarism compiled by Turnitin, a company that provides tools to ensure originality for educators. Some of the major types include:

  • Copying or submitting someone else's work: From copying-and-pasting to buying term papers online, this is one of the most frequent and most serious types of plagiarism, according to Turnitin's worldwide survey.
  • Improper citation: This form of plagiarism can take various forms, such as not using quotation marks correctly, paraphrasing multiple sources by cobbling them together, and citing non-existent sources or inaccurate information from your sources.
  • Self-plagiarism: Contrary to what many students believe, it is possible to plagiarize yourself (for example, borrowing "generously from [your own] previous work without citation," or turning in a paper for one class that you wrote for another).

Intent to cheat and extent of plagiarism are important factors when it comes to assessing the severity of a plagiarism case, according to Tracey Bretag in a PLOS Medicine article titled "Challenges in Addressing Plagiarism in Education." Intention is especially important when evaluating cases of accidental plagiarism, which can result from poor note taking, not quoting or citing properly, or paraphrasing incorrectly.

"Librarians have countless stories about people copying a quote or statistic, and then needing help to track down the source days later with very little information about where or how the source was found," Ryckman said. "There is so much information available and many paths to find supporting research that it's no wonder students have difficulty tracking down sources."

Before the ubiquity of the internet, students used the note card system for researching. They would go the library and write longhand on index cards to track topics, sources, key information and ideas (paraphrased from the original), as well as page numbers from library books and other resources. The libraries, meanwhile, functioned as informational gatekeepers, helping to curate credible sources and reputable works for students and researchers to reference.

Today, however, a generation of young people has been raised on the increasingly powerful and accurate technology of search engines like Google, YouTube, and Bing. Coupled with the prevalence of social media, such tools may lead people to "impatience-a preference for quick answers-and to a casual approach to evaluating information and attributing it," according to a 2009 report conducted by the U.K.'s Committee of Inquiry into the Changing Learner Experience.

Plagiarism in the Digital Information Age

A 2011 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center and Chronicle of Higher Education found that "[most] college presidents (55%) say that plagiarism in students' papers has increased over the past 10 years. Among those who have seen an increase in plagiarism, 89% say computers and the internet have played a major role."

Today, many students in the United States applying to university as freshmen have grown up as digital natives, with unprecedented access to information, resources, knowledge, expertise and opinions by way of computers, mobile devices and other technologies. Libraries are now expected to teach people how to determine what information is trustworthy and reliable, according to Pew Research Center's 2016 survey on libraries. That's no easy feat in a world where the answers to questions are available as Google search results, Wikipedia entries, Facebook posts, Twitter hashtags, YouTube videos, Reddit forums, news sites (real and fake) and more.

Students are often told that general or common knowledge does not require citation. When it comes to what is common knowledge in respect to plagiarism, this includes facts that are widely known to the public, ones that are not the results of original or unique research. Such facts are available from numerous (credible) sources and are not protected by copyright laws.

Common knowledge examples include the following:

  • Two-thirds of Earth's surface is covered by water.
  • Citrus fruits are a good source of vitamin C.
  • Mars is the fourth planet from the sun in our solar system.
  • Columbus set sail across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492.
  • Leonardo da Vinci painted La Giaconda, referred to as the Mona Lisa in English.

Context matters when it comes to common knowledge. "I think we can all agree, for example, that bats are nocturnal mammals. But if we were to say bats are nocturnal mammals whose population has been decimated by White-Nose Syndrome, then we want to cite the source from which we learned that the bat population has been affected. Not only does including the source strengthen our argument, it also gives the reader an opportunity to learn more," Ryckman said.

Facts serve an essential role in research papers or projects, but real learning is more than simply memorizing or replicating facts. Students should understand the material, demonstrate that understanding, and contribute their original thoughts, comparisons or interpretations.

Knowledge does not exist in a vacuum, which is why learning how to cite your sources and influences constitutes a basic life skill. "You can't just find an idea, take it, and write it down. It's not a word search. It's a process of building on the work that has come before yours, with attribution," said Jean Verno, a reference librarian at the Henrietta Public Library near Rochester, N.Y., who has also worked in higher education settings.

In other words, not giving credit where it is due is a way of taking credit, and thus, of plagiarizing. Avoiding plagiarism requires students to engage deeply with ideas, research and readings; synthesize learned material with original thinking and analysis; and properly cite others' work as they build on and contribute to existing knowledge on topics.

There's a world (wide web) of information out there. For instructors, teachers, librarians, professors, and other educators, the challenge is teaching people to parse and use that information in ways that are ethical and responsible.

Avoiding plagiarism

Technology makes plagiarizing (accidentally or on purpose) a real possibility, but it also makes catching plagiarism easier. A quick Google search by a moderately tech-savvy teacher or professor can reveal plagiarized content. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Students, researchers and instructors alike can use online plagiarism checkers and detection software (available for free or a fee) as learning tools to help ensure the originality and integrity of their writing and research.

While such tools are useful, instructors and librarians are students' greatest allies in the fight against plagiarism. These professionals are embracing technology to help teach fundamental digital and information literacy skills, including finding, assessing and integrating sources (including images) while citing and attributing them appropriately.

At SNHU, there are several avenues for students to get help finding and citing sources, according to Ryckman. "We work closely with the Writing Center, Online Writing Center, and faculty, all of which are resources to help students navigate, interpret, and cite sources. We also welcome every opportunity to show students the information landscape surrounding a discipline," he said.

Finally, students should take advantage of the numerous educational resources available for free online - including plagiarism.org and WriteCheck, which define plagiarism and explain ways to avoid it while giving examples. Other websites, such as dictionary.com, provide citations in several formats, allowing you to easily include them in a document's bibliography. Ryckman recommends students and faculty review the Association of College and Research Libraries' recently adopted framework for information literacy in higher education for exploring research as inquiry and scholarship as conversation.

While plagiarism is not illegal, the consequences vary by institutional or organizational policy, from a failing grade to a damaged reputation. So when in doubt about whether or not to attribute a quote or source, remember that, more often than not, cite makes right.

Jennifer Brady is a subject matter expert in higher ed marketing and student recruitment. Follow her on Twitter @whereisjenbrady or connect on LinkedIn.

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