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Academic Coaching & Writing

Work Habits to Avoid Plagiarism

Plagiarism—the failure to cite ideas and words that are not your own—can result in failure of a course, expulsion from a college, or dismissal from a job. The following list is intended to help you develop work habits to avoid being accused of plagiarism, especially if it is not your intent to mislead others about your work.

Start with Your Own Ideas at the Center: Put your own ideas at the center and keep them there. See if you can write down your ideas into a mind-map or an outline. So, to make this more about you, before you begin searching for sources, editing your text, or getting down to the nitty-gritty aspects of citing your sources, make sure your ideas are sound and are something you care about.

Do Not Overuse External Sources. Remember, your ideas are at the center, and the material around these ideas should not overshadow your own ideas. If you use too many external sources and not enough of your own ideas, you may be accused of “patchwork plagiarism,” which means you have strung together sources from a variety of primary and secondary materials, and your own ideas are no longer evident to the reader. Use outside sources only to support your ideas.

Learn to Paraphrase Correctly. Many writing textbooks provide examples of paraphrasing. It’s easier to tell you what it is not, than what it is. Paraphrasing is not using your thesaurus to change a few key words, or rearranging a few sentences, or taking a four-line quotation and splitting it up with your own words. The best way to paraphrase is to read the quotation, close the book or article, think about how to summarize the quotation, and then type in, without looking at the source, the paraphrase, which is now very much in your own words.

Copy Down All the Source Information When You First Use the Source. As you find sources and take notes, be sure to copy down all the information you will need to cite the source later. Do it now. Even if you have paraphrased the quotation, the idea is not yours. And no matter if you paraphrase or quote, do not rely on the notion that you will have time later to go back and find this information.

Keep All Your Drafts and Notes. Even after your paper is returned to you, keep all of your drafts and notes in a file. One positive reason is that your paper’s topic may be something on which you want to do further research later on, and an idea that you edited out of one draft may be needed for your new work, or to find a source. The other reason is that if for some reason you are accused of plagiarism, you will need to show the sources you used and the drafts that led up to the final project. If any question is raised about your work, it’s to your advantage to be able to produce your notes and preliminary drafts of your papers.

Ask for Clarity about Expectations and Citation Styles. Each professor, course, department, school within a college or university, and university, journal, publisher, and editor have specific rules about citations, academic integrity, and the use of sources. Be sure to ask for this information if you are unsure. Plagiarism is a culturally constructed idea. Different countries, cultures, universities, and publishers all hold different notions about what signifies plagiarism, when and how to cite someone else’s ideas, and even if it matters at all. However, if you are studying at or working for a college or university in the United States, you must adhere to that institution’s rules regarding academic integrity and honesty. If in doubt, always ask.

Double Check Your Sources: Give yourself time to double check your sources and the accuracy of your quotations or paraphrasing. Paraphrasing is tough to do well, and your decision to move a quotation into a paraphrase requires time, and also still requires a citation. If you are the type who works on your writing until the last minute—because writing can always be tightened up in some way—you may find that you have run out of time. Doing it carefully the first time saves you time at the end that you may not have.

Cite Online Sources Correctly. Using the web and electronic resources is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that it puts all sorts of primary (and secondary) work at our fingertips, but the curse is that it makes it very easy to simply cut and paste source material into your work. The key here is to cite correctly the online source. Nowadays, all citation styles—APA, MLA, etc.—have clear cut guidelines for citing online sources.

For Instructors: How to Prevent and Detect Plagiarism

Writers Are Innocent until Proven Guilty. Be absolutely sure if you feel that someone has plagiarized. An instructor or editor can use the following signals to determine if plagiarism has occurred, but do remember that it is often unintentional:

  • Shifts in writing style, or improved sophistication of ideas, audience, genre, purpose, vocabulary, evidence, and sources;
  • Shift from the assigned topic to one that does not relate clearly to the assigned topic;
  • Reference to a work not discussed in class or to the nature of the discipline;
  • Reference from another text that the reader failed to edit out, such as an embedded note in the text “[See picture above]” or “In the previous chapter;”
  • Citations to quotations from an edition that is not the one being used in class, and the edition is not cited in the bibliography or works cited;
  • Failure to include a Works Cited or Bibliography.

Create Plagiarism-Proof Assignments. As an instructor, create assignments that form the foundation of a productive writing challenge for your students. State your expectations clearly, allow class time to discuss the assignment when the assignment is handed out, and include clear, concise criteria on which the assignment will be judged. Likewise, provide students with adequate time to use a writing process that includes peer review, drafts, writing workshops, visits to a writing center if necessary, and office meeting time with you if they become stuck. Teach them what plagiarism is, illustrate the process, and help them develop the right habits so that they won’t mistakenly plagiarize.

Be Clear in Your Construction of Assignments. Using clear language about the type of assignment is crucial. Create an assignment for which the answer cannot easily be found on the Internet. Also use terms that signify to the student writer exactly what kind of analysis you expect; use words such as: analyze, assess, compare, contrast, define, describe, evaluate, examine, explain, interpret, justify, outline, prove, and review (or words that call for higher-order critical thinking skills, as defined by Benjamin Bloom’s “Taxonomy of Learning,” such as apply, analyze, synthesize, or evaluate). Finally, in the assignment, be clear about which style you want your students to use: MLA, APA, CBE, Chicago, etc.


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