Guilford College Writing Manual

This is the official Guilford College Writing Manual. A collaboration between the English Department and the Hege Library.

Plagiarism

XVI. PLAGIARISM

A DEFINITION

            Plagiarism comes from a Latin word, plagium, which means "kidnapping." 

            It can refer to using someone else's words without giving credit: three consecutive words are enough to constitute plagiarism. Or it can refer to using someone else's ideas‑‑this time without using the author's own words‑‑again without giving credit.

            Plagiarism is taken seriously at Guilford. It is a violation of the Honor Code. If a professor suspects you of having committed plagiarism, you will be reported to the Honors Board. Penalties are stiff . . . and ignorance is no excuse.

            Why all the fuss? We're only talking about words and ideas, right?

            Wrong. The following excerpt from a statement prepared by the English department at Wake Forest University should explain what's so serious about plagiari­sm. Special thanks to English instructor Janet Cochran for passing it along:

            Plagiarism is a form of theft. Taking words, phrasing, sentence structure, or any other element of the expression of another person's ideas, and using them as if they were yours, is like taking from that person a material possession, something he or she has worked for and earned. Even worse is the appropriation of someone else's ideas. By "ideas" is meant everything from the definition or interpretation of a single word, to the overall approach of an argument. If you paraphrase, you merely translate from his or her language to yours; another person's ideas in your language are still not your ideas.  To paraphrase, therefore, without a footnote, is theft, perhaps theft of the worst kind. Here a person loses not a material possess­ion, but something of what characterizes him or her as an individual.

            The statement goes on to say, "Your responsibility, when you put your name on a piece of work, is simply to distinguish between what is yours and what is not, and to credit those who in any way have contributed." (italics added for emphasis)

HELPFUL SUGGESTIONS

            As we all know, confidently avoiding plagiarism is not always simple. So here are some informative suggestions, credit for which goes to an Earlham College pamphlet:

             (1) Plagiarism can be deliberate or inadvertent. If you take haphazard notes from books and journal articles and later use your notes in a paper, you might accidentally incorporate the idea or language of another author. You might not realize that you are doing this, you might not remember whether a passage is a direct quotation, or you might not even remember whether a particular idea is your own or from another source. You may feel innocent, but you would still be guilty of plagiarism. To avoid inadvertent plagiarism, you should make a habit of using quotation marks and documenting sources in the notes you take on books and articles. Be especially careful when cutting and pasting.

            (2) You should cite your sources whether you quote or merely paraphrase them. A citation can be a footnote, an endnote, or a parenthetical note within your main text. It should identify the author and work from which the cited idea or language is taken, and usually the publisher, date, and pages as well . . .

            (3) Quotations must contain quotation marks and a citation to avoid plagiarism.  You can quote whole sentences, useful phrases, or striking terms, depending on your purposes and style. But whenever the language is not your own, use quotation marks. The citation will not only help you avoid plagiarism, but will help your readers judge whether you have quoted inaccurately or out of context, follow up leads you lay down, agree and disagree intelligently, and continue the inquiry.

            (4) To paraphrase is to restate another person's ideas in your own words.  Paraphrasing raises the most difficult problems in the avoidance of plagiarism.

            If the language of your paraphrase is very close to the original, then to drop the quotation marks and pretend the language is your own is still mislead­ing and dishonest.  It is still plagiarism. This is so even if you include a citation. A good paraphrase goes well beyond superficial tinkering with the original language; it is a restatement of an idea in your own words.

            After paraphrasing a passage or idea, check the original to make certain that

  • you have not inadvertently reproduced the original language
  • you have captured the point accurately.

            Paraphrases must still cite the original to avoid plagiarism. The original author gave you both an idea and an expression of an idea. Even if you borrow only the idea without the expression, the author still deserves credit.

            (5) Research in which you consult and learn from sources of all kinds is compatible with a strict watchfulness for plagiarism. If you borrow something from another, you should cite that person, and follow the rules about quotation and paraphrase.  After a point, you will have thoughts of your own that are difficult to trace back to any particular source or inspiration. They are your own, and need not be cited. It has been said that good scholars are like bees: they collect pollen from all over, but they turn it into their own honey.

            (6) Similarly, you should not fear to seek or accept legitimate help from tutors and friends. If a friend reads your paper and gives you helpful criticism, or if a tutor helps you with your writing, you can benefit from that help without stepping over the line of plagiarism. The best way is to hear the criticism, the suggestions, or the principles of your ‘critics,' to understand them, and to revise your paper in light of your understanding. Whether a paragraph rewritten with the help of a friend or tutor is really your own can be a very difficult question requiring fine judgment. It is your responsibility to use your judgment to prevent overeager helpers from depriving you of authorship.

            (7) When in doubt, err on the side of citing more rather than less.  When you are in a difficult, gray area, ask your instructor for advice.

WHEN DOES GENERAL INFORMATION NEED TO BE CITED?

            One gray area that deserves special attention: where do you one draw the line between material that is widely known and thus does not need to be cited, and material that does need to be cited? 

            Here’s a principle to work with: information that can be found in five or more different sources can be considered general information and thus does not need to be cited

            You need not document the fact that Einstein presented his general theory of relativity in 1916, because this fact is widely known and published. On the other hand, you would document little‑known information on the contemporary sources of his theory (perhaps found in a biography of Einstein), and you would document another scientist's opinion of Einstein's theory (for example, Stephen Hawking's in A Brief History of Time).

            If you are still uncertain about what plagiarism is and isn't, consult any college English handbook or guide to the writing of research papers. Nearly all of these sources feature concrete examples of the do's and don’ts of integrating someone else's words and ideas.