Sunday, November 27, 2011

From the MLA handbook


Derived from the Latin word plagiarius (“kidnapper”), to plagiarize means “to commit literary theft” and to “present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary [11th ed.; 2003; print]). Plagiarism involves two kinds of wrongs. Using another person’s ideas, information, or expressions without acknowledging that person’s work constitutes intellectual theft. Passing off another person’s ideas, information, or expressions as your own to get a better grade or gain some other advantage constitutes fraud. Plagiarism is sometimes a moral and ethical offense rather than a legal one since some instances of plagiarism fall outside the scope of copyright infringement, a legal offense (see 2.7.4).


A complex society that depends on well-informed citizens strives to maintain high standards of quality and reliability for documents that are publicly circulated and used in government, business, industry, the professions, higher education, and the media. Because research has the power to affect opinions and actions, responsible writers compose their work with great care. They specify when they refer to another author’s ideas, facts, and words, whether they want to agree with, object to, or analyze the source. This kind of documentation not only recognizes the work writers do; it also tends to discourage the circulation of error, by inviting readers to determine for themselves whether a reference to another text presents a reasonable account of what that text says. Plagiarists undermine these important public values. Once detected, plagiarism in a work provokes skepticism and even outrage among readers, whose trust in the author has been broken.

The charge of plagiarism is a serious one for all writers. Plagiarists are often seen as incompetent—incapable of developing and expressing their own thoughts—or, worse, dishonest, willing to deceive others for personal gain. When professional writers, such as journalists, are exposed as plagiarists, they are likely to lose their jobs, and they are certain to suffer public embarrassment and loss of prestige. Almost always, the course of a writer’s career is permanently affected by a single act of plagiarism. The serious consequences of plagiarism reflect the value the public places on trustworthy information.

Students exposed as plagiarists may suffer severe penalties, ranging from failure in the assignment or in the course to expulsion from school. This is because student plagiarism does considerable harm. For one thing, it damages teachers’ relationships with students, turning teachers into detectives instead of mentors and fostering suspicion instead of trust. By undermining institutional standards for assigning grades and awarding degrees, student plagiarism also becomes a matter of significance to the public. When graduates’ skills and knowledge fail to match their grades, an institution’s reputation is damaged. For example, no one would choose to be treated by a physician who obtained a medical degree by fraud. Finally, students who plagiarize harm themselves. They lose an important opportunity to learn how to write a research paper. Knowing how to collect and analyze information and reshape it in essay form is essential to academic success. This knowledge is also required in a wide range of careers in law, journalism, engineering, public policy, teaching, business, government, and not-for-profit organizations.

Plagiarism betrays the personal element in writing as well. Discussing the history of copyright, Mark Rose notes the tie between our writing and our sense of self—a tie that, he believes, influenced the idea that a piece of writing could belong to the person who wrote it. Rose says that our sense of ownership of the words we write “is deeply rooted in our conception of ourselves as individuals with at least a modest grade of singularity, some degree of personality” (Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright [Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993; print; 142]). Gaining skill as a writer opens the door to learning more about yourself and to developing a personal voice and approach in your writing. It is essential for all student writers to understand how to avoid committing plagiarism.


Innumerable documents on a host of subjects are posted on the Web apparently for the purpose of being shared. The availability of research materials and the ease of transmitting, modifying, and using them have influenced the culture of the Internet, where the free exchange of information is an ideal. In this sea of materials, some students may question the need to acknowledge the authorship of individual documents. Professional writers, however, have no doubt about the matter. They recognize the importance of documentation whether they base their research on print or electronic publications. And so they continue to cite their sources and to mark the passages they quote.

In the culture of the academy, too, the free exchange of information is a long-standing ideal. Under certain circumstances, this ideal is described as academic freedom. But nothing about academic freedom or the free exchange of information implies ignoring authorship. Academic standards require all writers to acknowledge the authors whose work they use when preparing papers and other kinds of studies and reports.

New technologies have made information easier to locate and obtain, but research projects only begin with identifying and collecting source material. The essential intellectual tasks of a research project have not changed. These tasks call for a student to understand the published facts, ideas, and insights about a subject and to integrate them with the student’s own views on the topic. To achieve this goal, student writers must rigorously distinguish between what they borrow and what they create.

As information sharing has become easier, so has plagiarism. For instance, on the Internet it is possible to buy and download completed research papers. Some students are misinformed about buying research papers, on the Internet or on campus. They believe that if they buy a paper, it belongs to them, and therefore they can use the ideas, facts, sentences, and paragraphs in it, free from any worry about plagiarism. Buying a paper, however, is the same as buying a book or a magazine. You own the physical copy of the book or magazine, which you may keep in your bookcase, give to a friend, or sell. And you may use whatever you learn from reading it in your own writing. But you are never free from the obligation to let your readers know the source of the ideas, facts, words, or sentences you borrow. Publications are a special kind of property. You can own them physically, but the publisher or author retains rights to the content. You should also know that purchased papers are readily recognizable, and teachers can often trace downloaded materials through an Internet search.


You have plagiarized if:

-you took notes that did not distinguish summary and paraphrase from quotation and then you presented wording from the notes as if it were all your own.
-while browsing the Web, you copied text and pasted it into your paper without quotation marks or without citing the source.
-you repeated or paraphrased someone’s wording without acknowledgment.
-you took someone’s unique or particularly apt phrase without acknowledgment.
-you paraphrased someone’s argument or presented someone’s line of thought without acknowledgment.
-you bought or otherwise acquired a research paper and handed in part or all of it as your own.

You can avoid plagiarism by:

-making a list of the writers and viewpoints you discovered in your research and using this list to double-check the presentation of material in your paper.
-keeping the following three categories distinct in your notes: your ideas, your summaries of others’ material, and exact wording you copy.
-identifying the sources of all material you borrow—exact wording, paraphrases, ideas, arguments, and facts.
-checking with your instructor when you are uncertain about your use of sources.

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