2b- Under­stand­ing Plagiarism

Very often, in a writ­ing class, the ethics of writ­ing is under­stood through the pre­sen­ta­tion of a sin­gle word: pla­gia­rism.  Most often, by the time stu­dents reach col­lege, they know some def­i­n­i­tion of pla­gia­rism and have a strong sense that pla­gia­rism is BAD.  How­ev­er, pre­cise­ly what those def­i­n­i­tions are and what actu­al con­sti­tutes the act pla­gia­rism can vary from teacher-to-teacher, stu­dent-to-stu­dent, from insti­tu­tion-to-insti­tu­tion. This vari­ance cre­ates an eth­i­cal­ly com­plex instruc­tion­al sit­u­a­tion. In keep­ing with the WPA (Writ­ing Pro­gram Admin­is­tra­tors) State­ment on Best Prac­tices Defin­ing and Avoid­ing Pla­gia­rism, we define pla­gia­rism as the delib­er­ate rep­re­sen­ta­tion, of another’s words or ideas as your own.

The key to this def­i­n­i­tion is the word “delib­er­ate.” For a mul­ti­tude of rea­sons, sim­ply know­ing the def­i­n­i­tion of pla­gia­rism does not mean that stu­dents will not engage in it, or ful­ly under­stand how to avoid it. In the vast major­i­ty of cas­es, stu­dents are not behav­ing in a crim­i­nal man­ner when they pla­gia­rize.  Instead, there are often oth­er moti­vat­ing fac­tors – fear, lack of time, lack of con­fi­dence, lack of scope regard­ing the dif­fer­ence between elec­tron­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tion and aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing. Even with those oth­er pres­sures, it is impor­tant that you under­stand WHY you need to acknowl­edge sources.

Pla­gia­rism isn’t high­light­ed at every aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tu­tion in order to keep stu­dents in a con­stant state of fear. Rather, it is a big deal because aca­d­e­m­ic knowl­edge-mak­ing comes from always think­ing about where your ideas come from and how they are con­nect­ed to the oth­er ideas.  You can see these stan­dards of knowl­edge-mak­ing as an exten­sion of the ideas sur­round­ing ethics that have already been addressed in this chap­ter – demon­strate respect and human­i­ty for the mem­bers of a community.

With that in mind, it seems both eth­i­cal and appro­pri­ate to dig a lit­tle deep­er into how the con­ven­tions that sur­round the cita­tion and doc­u­men­ta­tion of source mate­r­i­al serve you as a researcher, writer and schol­ar, and serve the mem­bers of your intel­lec­tu­al com­mu­ni­ty. Recent high-pro­file pro­fes­sion­al pla­gia­rism cas­es in the news tend to high­light the crim­i­nal and the “steal­ing” aspect of abus­es of our intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty con­ven­tions. While rec­og­niz­ing that an intel­lec­tu­al form of own­er­ship is cer­tain­ly cen­tral to the ideas behind our con­ven­tions for doc­u­ment­ing intel­lec­tu­al ideas, in the aca­d­e­m­ic com­mu­ni­ty the larg­er impe­tus for acknowl­edg­ing source mate­r­i­al is the shared process of build­ing knowledge.

When you write, you are enter­ing a com­mu­ni­ty in which you are expect­ed to under­stand, aug­ment, engage in dia­logue with, and even chal­lenge the work of oth­er researchers and writ­ers. Appro­pri­ate cita­tion of your source mate­r­i­al is a hos­pitable act – you acknowl­edge and appre­ci­ate what has come before you and you invite oth­ers into the con­ver­sa­tion, mak­ing them com­fort­able by help­ing them under­stand their sur­round­ings and be able to fol­low from where you ideas have come. You MUST, in our aca­d­e­m­ic tra­di­tion, prop­er­ly acknowledge—through citation—other authors and writ­ers in an effort to hon­or the thinker and treat her or him with respect.  This acknowl­edg­ment also helps estab­lish a cer­tain kind of ethos for you as a writer –say­ing “I am cred­i­ble, I have done my research, and I am con­tribut­ing to wider under­stand­ing of these ideas.”

Think­ing in those terms then, enter into your research, both pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary, think­ing of your “sources” as peo­ple, as writ­ers, as com­mu­ni­ca­tors of ideas. In doing so, you move active­ly away from think­ing of ideas as com­ing from books or arti­cles (“this book says” or “the sta­tis­tics sug­gest” or “the arti­cle explores”…) as dis­em­bod­ied notions. The ideas, opin­ions, method­olo­gies, and analy­ses are all con­nect­ed to indi­vid­u­als. As you move through your research, imag­ine your­self in con­ver­sa­tion with those indi­vid­u­als. What do they say? How do you respond? Where do you take their ideas in a new direc­tion? Where do you share opin­ions? Where, how, and why do you diverge?

Enter your search for sec­ondary source mate­r­i­al aware of the respon­si­bil­i­ties that you have for both in-text and bib­li­o­graph­ic doc­u­men­ta­tion. As you go through the process in Chap­ter 5 of locat­ing and explor­ing sec­ondary sources, make sure that you note com­plete bib­li­o­graph­ic infor­ma­tion for every­thing you intend to use or ref­er­ence. You must keep track of the fol­low­ing basic infor­ma­tion:  author/s, editor/s (if there are any), date of pub­li­ca­tion, title of book/article, title of jour­nal and vol­ume num­ber (if it’s an arti­cle), pub­lish­er of book or jour­nal, city of pub­li­ca­tion, and page num­bers.  There are an num­ber of online appli­ca­tions that can help you in this regard—Zotero and Easy Bib are just two among many–that allow  you to not only keep track of sources, but assist in plac­ing the infor­ma­tion into an appro­pri­ate aca­d­e­m­ic format.

Cit­ing schol­ars and includ­ing bib­li­o­graph­ic infor­ma­tion can seem like a has­sle and it can feel like a “minor detail,” a nui­sance.  Rather than see­ing it in this light, con­sid­er the author as you might a real per­son giv­ing you infor­ma­tion. Alive or dead, the author of anoth­er source has a right to the real­i­ty of their own words and you have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to ensure them that right.  Though it may not make it any more inter­est­ing, such a per­spec­tive might at least make it more rel­e­vant to you!