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!