Avoiding Plagiarism

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by David Voelker, Humanities & History, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

This article is currently in Draft status.

Scholars constantly borrow ideas from one another, and this exchange makes for an exciting conversation. But all writers must acknowledge their debts. In the academic world, borrowing phrases, facts, or ideas without citing your sources is a form of intellectual theft. Because the entire academic enterprise depends on honesty, students convicted of plagiarism face serious sanctions, up to and including failure of the course. It is your responsibility to understand these rules and actively to avoid plagiarism. This document cannot cover every possible type of plagiarism, but it does point to some common varieties and suggest how to avoid them.

Warning! It is possible to cite a source and still plagiarize from it. You must use quotation marks to indicate direct copying of words from a source. See item #2 below for more details.

Basic Guidelines

  1. When you borrow an idea or piece of information, you must cite your source. The various academic disciplines use different citation formats, but they all require citation of sources. The EWEH requires endnote citations. The main exception to the requirement for a citation involves simple facts that are considered common knowledge, which means that they can be found in any number of basic works on the subject at hand. You would not need to cite the source that you used to find out what year Thomas Jefferson was elected president, but you would need to cite the source that you used to learn how and why he won.
  2. If you borrow exact words or phrases, it is not enough merely to cite the source--you must use quotation marks to show what you have borrowed. Please note that you cannot put quotation marks around a paraphrase “just to be safe.” Quotation marks indicate a direct and exact quotation, with any additions enclosed in brackets or deletions indicated by ellipses.
  3. Instead of quoting directly from a source, you may paraphrase it (put it in your own words). When paraphrasing, you cannot simply substitute your words into someone else’s sentence structure. You are obligated to rewrite the passage completely. The following passages are quoted from James West Davidson, et al., Nations of Nations: A Concise Narrative of the American Republic, Vol. I, 2nd ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1999). Notice how the poorly paraphrased versions plagiarize--despite the citations.
    1. Original Passage: “Equally important in preserving local order was the church.”
      1. Poor Paraphrase (Plagiarism): Ministers were very significant figures in colonial New England, because the churches were very important in preserving local order (Davidson, 69).
      2. Comment: The original passage has been cited here, but this paraphrase has borrowed a significant phrase (in italics) from the source without using quotation marks.
    2. Original Passage: “British troops found themselves regularly cursed by citizens and occasionally pelted with stones, dirt, and human excrement.”
      1. Poor Paraphrase (Plagiarism): British soldiers were often cursed by the townspeople and were sometimes targeted with dirt, human excrement, and stones (Davidson, 131).
      2. Comment: The author of this sentence essentially borrowed the sentence structure from the original source, plugged in a few synonyms, and switched around the order of a few words. This is not a satisfactory paraphrase. A paraphrase must totally restate the original source.
  4. Beware of plagiarizing from lectures, PowerPoint slides, assignment sheets, and handouts from your instructors. Treat these sources as you would any outside source, either using quotation marks or paraphrases and indicating your borrowing of words or ideas. Cite lectures or presentations using their titles or dates and the name of the speaker.
  5. Follow this rule and you will be safe: If you borrow an idea or fact, phrase it in your own words and attribute it to the source from which you have borrowed it. If you cannot adequately rephrase the idea or fact, then use quotation marks and cite your source.
  6. You must always worry about being safe before you worry about being eloquent, but if you constantly quote basic facts your writing will become encumbered and clumsy. So, it is a good idea to paraphrase secondary sources whenever possible. Obviously, you do not want to have to put quotation marks around single words. You are writing in the same language as your source, and you will sometimes have to use some of the same words. If you have really restated a fact or idea, your use of a couple of the same words as your source is not plagiarism. But if you copy a sentence structure or borrow whole phrases from your source, you have crossed the line into plagiarism.

A Special Warning about Internet-Based Research:

The internet can be a wonderful resource, but many web sites are not reliable sources of historical information, and the web is also a very tempting source of plagiarism. The Internet is not a collective brain that you may pick freely without citation. If you borrow substantial ideas or language from the Internet, you must cite your source. Never copy and paste from the internet directly into your paper without immediately adding quotation marks. To paraphrase responsibly, you must completely rewrite a passage. Copying, pasting, and making a few changes is plagiarism.

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