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Avoiding Plagiarism LRC@TCC

The following guide defines and describes plagiarism and gives general guidelines for using sources in essays. Policies on plagiarism may vary from course to course, and in some fields the definition of plagiarism may need to be extended or modified. If you have questions, check with your instructor or a reliable documentation guide in the field.

Plagiarism Defined
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Plagiarism is turning in or passing off someone else's work as your own. Sometimes, the line between borrowing and stealing is unclear. In an intellectual community, ideas are passed around freely. Most intellectual inquiry could not take place without borrowing from the work of others. Responsible, honest writers indicate their debts to others by clearly citing material that they have borrowed. Irresponsible or dishonest writers often fail to cite their borrowings and thus become guilty of plagiarism.

Plagiarized work is easy to recognize because it does not clearly indicate borrowing. It is full of facts, observations, and ideas the writer could not have developed on his or her own and is written in a different style. Experienced writers rely almost as much as plagiarizers on other writers; they know that their ideas are generated in the context of the ideas of others. As a matter of honor, they indicate their debts to other writers and by doing so they more clearly indicate their own original contributions.

Sometimes it is difficult to decide whether or not to cite a source. But if you know how to use and cite sources and if you are careful to note borrowings when you are writing your paper, you will not have a problem with plagiarism.

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Words You Need to Know
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  • Quote: A word for word copy of something someone else has said or written. In writing, a quoted passage is indicated by putting quotation marks (") at the beginning and end of the quote or, if the quote is long, setting it apart from the main text in an indented block. The source of the quote must also be cited, either in the text or in an endnote.
  • Paraphrase: In a paraphrase, you restate in your own words something your source has said. Many pieces of writing are almost all paraphrase. One purpose of paraphrasing, as opposed to quoting, is to put something into words your audience will understand. Articles in popular science magazines often paraphrase more difficult articles in science journals. Putting something into your own words is an important intellectual activity in its own right: it shows you understand and can work with the material. A paraphrase must be cited; otherwise, it is as much a case of plagiarizing as copying word for word without citing the source. Putting something in your own words does not make it yours.
  • Summary: Like a paraphrase, a summary of a source is in your own words, but a summary is considerably shorter and does not follow the source as closely as a paraphrase. Again, you must cite the source for the summary.
  • Citation: Identifies the source of a quote, paraphrase or summary. Citation practices vary considerably in different types of writing. In popular journalism, it's usually enough to cite the source in the text by the author's name. Some academic and professional writing requires only a brief textual citation, usually the name, the book or magazine it appeared in, and perhaps the page number. But most academic and professional writing requires a full citation, either in text or in a combination of a parenthetical citation in the text and a complete bibliographic entry in a List of Works Cited.
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Types of Plagiarism
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  1. Direct Plagiarism: This is copying a source word for word without indicating that it is a quote and crediting the author.
  2. Borrowing work from other students: Dormitories, sororities, and fraternities provide atmospheres congenial to paper borrowing. There's nothing wrong with students helping each other or sharing information. But you must write your own essays. Turning in a paper that someone else has written is a special case of direct plagiarism.
  3. Vague or Incorrect Citation: A writer should indicate where a borrowing begins and ends. Sometimes, a writer cites a source once, and the reader assumes that the previous sentence or paragraph has been paraphrased, when most of the essay is a paraphrase of this one source. The writer has failed to indicate his borrowings clearly. Paraphrases and summaries should be indicated as such by surrounding them with citation--at the beginning with the author's name, at the end with a parenthetical reference. The writer must always clearly indicate when a paraphrase, summary, or quotation begins, ends, or is interrupted.
  4. Mosaic Plagiarism: This is the most common type of plagiarism. The writer does not copy the source directly, but changes a few words in each sentence or slightly reworks a paragraph, without giving credit to the original author. Those sentences or paragraphs are not quotes, but are so close to quotes that that they should be quoted or, if they have been changed enough to qualify as a paraphrase, the source should be cited.

 

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Why Students Plagiarize
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Students who plagiarize generally fall into two categories. The first includes those who have difficulty writing correct, coherent essays. They may never have received good instruction in writing; they may never have done much writing; they may not be native speakers of English and have difficulty writing in English. Whatever the reason, they find that after working long and hard, they still receive a low grade on their writing. Out of frustration and fear, they may plagiarize an essay, copying it word for word or making only a few slight changes in the wording (mosaic plagiarism).

Rather than plagiarizing, these students should seek assistance from their instructor, from the Writing Center, or from a special tutor or counselor, who can provide assistance not only with a learning disability, but also with frustration, fear, and stress.

The second category consists of students who, though they can write well enough, find plagiarism tempting. Generally, these students either fear getting a grade that is lower than the one they or their parents expect them to get, or have fallen behind in their course work and feel they do not have time to write an essay. They may feel that they cannot handle the assigned task or that they don't have any good ideas on the subject.

The latter fears are usually unjustified. Once you begin writing, you will usually discover that you have something to say.

Even good students occasionally fall behind in their course work. When this happens, you should discuss the matter with your instructor. He or she may penalize you for submitting work late, but late work is preferable to plagiarized work. If you find that you are overwhelmed by your course work, that you are constantly getting behind and are unable to catch up, you may want to arrange a visit with a counselor at Academic Affairs. He or she can help you learn to manage your time and the stress of university life better.

Realize that plagiarizing an essay is always the worst solution to any academic problem.

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A Case of Plagiarism
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Richard Marius, in his statement on plagiarism for Harvard University, cites a case of mosaic plagiarism. G. R. V. Barratt, in the introduction to an anthology called The Decembrist Memoirs (l974), plagiarized from several works, including The Decembrists (l966) by Marc Raeff. In one passage Raeff had written:

December 14, 1825, was the day set for taking the oath of allegiance to the new Emperor, Nicholas I. Only a few days earlier, on November 27, when news of the death of Alexander I had reached the capital, an oath of allegiance had been taken to Nicholas's older brother, Grand Duke Constantine, Viceroy of Poland. But in accordance with the act of renunciation he had made in 1819, Constantine had refused the crown. The virtual interregnum stirred society and produced uneasiness among the troops, and the government was apprehensive of disorders and disturbances. Police agents reported the existence of secret societies and rumors of a coup to be staged by regiments of the Guards. The new Emperor was anxious to have the oath taken as quickly and quietly as possible. The members of the central government institutions--Council of State, Senate, Ministries--took the oath without incident, early in the morning. In most regiments of the garrison the oath was also taken peaceably.

Barratt presented the same paragraph with only a few words and details changed:

 

December 14, 1825, was the day on which the Guards' regiments in Petersburg were to swear solemn allegiance to Nicholas I, the new Emperor. Less than three weeks before, when news of the death of Alexander I had reached the capital from Taganrog on the sea of Azov, an oath, no less solemn and binding, had been taken to Nicholas's elder brother, the Grand Duke Constantine, viceroy of Poland. Constantine, however, had declined to be emperor, in accordance with two separate acts of renunciation made in l819 and, secretly, in 1822. The effective interregnum caused uneasiness both in society and in the army. The government feared undefined disorders--with some reason, since police agents reported the existence of various clandestine groups and rumors of a coup to be effected by guardsmen. Nicholas was anxious that the oath be sworn to him promptly and quietly. At first it would seem that he would have his way; senators, ministers, and members of the Council of State took the oath by 9 A. M. In most regiments of the garrison the oath was also taken peaceably.

Exercise #l: To see why this is mosaic plagiarism, compare these two versions line by line. What changes has Barratt made? Why do you think he made these changes? Why is this a case of plagiarism even though Barratt has made changes?

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Ways to Avoid Plagiarism
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  • Give yourself plenty of time to research and write your essay. Do enough research early to determine if your topic is workable. Students who hand in a paper on topic different from the one proposed or that they have done preliminary work on are often suspected of plagiarism. When you can't find the material you need and don't have enough time to start a new topic, plagiarizing an essay is a great temptation.
  • When you are doing a paper that uses sources, give yourself time to digest the research. If you are working directly from the source book, you may begin to do a mosaic plagiarism. If you write a draft without using the source material, and then go back and incorporate the quotes you need and indicate your borrowings, you may find that you have produced a more original paper. Originality comes from synthesizing what you have read.
  • Take careful research notes that include full bibliographic citations. This will insure that you can easily cite a source when you prepare your final draft. Many students write their final drafts late at night after the library has closed, and when they find they have forgotten to write down the bibliographic data, they are tempted not to bother with the citation.
  • Make it a habit to put parenthetical citations for all the sources you borrow from in each draft you write. This will save you time because you won't have to look up your citations when you are preparing the final draft.
  • Keep a good documentation guide handy when you are doing your research and writing your paper.
  • Have confidence in yourself. Even the best writers are often unaware of their good ideas and think they have nothing to say when their writing says a lot. Original ideas come from working closely with the ideas of others, not from flashes of inspiration.
  • Know where to get help. Besides your instructor, you can get help from the Writing Center. Reference librarians can help you with your research. University counselors can help you with problems like time management, stress, and learning disabilities. Their services are confidential and free of charge. Finally, your academic advisor can help you put your course work in perspective.

 

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Plagiarism and the Web:
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The Web provides another opportunity for plagiarism. Many professors are setting up class web sites, where student place essays written for class. This allows students in the class to read and make comments on each other's work, without the massive amount of photocopying that peer criticism used to involve. Since any file on the Web can be downloaded as a text file, these papers can be copied by anyone who gains access to them.

So, if getting papers from the Web is so easy and cheap, why not do it?

  • First, there's a chance you won't get away with it. In the past, most professors have been reluctant to charge students with plagiarism unless they had direct evidence of it (usually the source the student copied from). As buying and "borrowing" papers from the Web becomes more common, faculty are likely to be more willing to bring plagiarism charges based on indirect evidence, such as a noticeable difference in the style and vocabulary of two pieces of writing a student has submitted. Faculty are also more likely to demand drafts and to require that essays deal with very specific topics. Such demands greatly limit the opportunity to plagiarize.
  • Second, the penalties for Web plagiarism may be more severe than students suspect. The commercial essay sites all have warnings that the essays being sold are for research purposes only. Submitting them for a class is a violation of copyright and could make the student liable in a lawsuit. Such warnings may be meant no more seriously than the warnings on porno sites that you must be 18 years old to enter. However, some universities are discussing ways to pressure these companies into suing students who are caught submitting their papers. Such legal penalties are above and beyond the academic penalties for plagiarism, which can also be severe.
  • Finally, there is the matter of personal integrity. Electronic media make it easier for everyone, not just college students, to cheat. Photographs stored digitally can easily be altered and distributed. Money can be shuffled from one account to another, often without leaving much of a trace. Degrees can be faked. Records altered. And information of all kinds copied and repackaged. In such an environment, personal integrity begins to count for something; it begins to stand out. And it becomes linked to creativity. An electronic culture where everyone is "borrowing" from everyone else soon begins to run in circles for want of people who can do their own work. If, instead of learning to think on your own and express your ideas clearly in writing, you merely learn to find things on the Web and modify them for your own use, this is probably all you will learn. And the prospect that the quality of your work might be limited by the quality of what's on the Web should be a frightening one.

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Conclusion
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Learning how to use sources is one of the most important things you will learn in college. By using sources well and by clearly indicating your debts to these sources, your writing gains authority, clarity, and precision. A discussion with a well-informed and thoughtful person helps us think more clearly. Using sources in writing is a way of developing such a discussion.

Writers who plagiarize lose the advantages of belonging to an intellectual community. If they are professionals, they may be barred from practicing their profession or their work may not be taken seriously. If they are students, they will carry the stigma of having plagiarized. Teachers will be suspicious of their work and will be unwilling to support any of their future efforts, write recommendations for them, or even work with them at all. Plagiarism is one of the worst mistakes anyone can make.

You should not, however, become too fretful about plagiarism. Writers cannot hope to indicate or even be aware of all their borrowings, and there is a point where an idea borrowed from someone else becomes, after long reflection, your own. So long as you are scrupulous about indicating material you have quoted and immediate borrowings you've made in paraphrases, you will not be suspected or guilty of plagiarism.

Adapted with permission from Depauw University's Avoiding Plagiarism
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