Dean of Academic Life
Writing Across the Curriculum
Jill Stephen & David Rosenwasser, Co-Directors
As in most of the country, there has been a significant rise in the number of plagiarism cases at Muhlenberg. What are we going to do about it? The College is determined not to look the other way, but rather to use this rise as an occasion for rededicating ourselves to the values that support an environment of open and honest communication. This document is part of that conversation.
Many commentators blame the Internet, with its easily accessible, cut-and-pasted information, for increasing the likelihood of plagiarism. Others cite a lack of clarity about what plagiarism is and why it is a serious problem. So let’s start by clarifying.
Most people have some idea of what plagiarism is. You already know that it’s against the rules to buy a paper from an Internet paper mill or to download others’ words verbatim and hand them in as your own thinking. And you probably know that even if you change a few words and rearrange the sentence structure, you still need to acknowledge the source. The Academic Behavior Code at Muhlenberg defines plagiarism as follows:
Copying from a book, article, notebook, or other source material, whether published or unpublished, without giving proper credit through the use of quotation marks, footnotes, and other customary means of identifying sources, or passing off as one’s own the ideas, words, writings, and experiments of another (Muhlenberg College Student Handbook, 2001-2002, 45).
In short, plagiarism (as one handbook puts it) gives “the impression that you have written or thought something that you have in fact borrowed from someone else” (Gibaldi 30). It is a form of theft and fraud. Borrowing from someone else, by the way, also includes taking and not acknowledging words and ideas from your friends or your parents. Put another way: any assignment with your name on it signifies that you are the author—that the words and ideas are yours, with any exceptions indicated by source citations, and if you’re quoting, quotation marks.
Knowing what plagiarism is, however, doesn’t guarantee that you’ll know how to avoid it. Is it okay, for example, to cobble together a series of summaries and paraphrases in a paragraph, provided you include the authors in a bibliography at the end of the paper? Or how about if you insert a single footnote at the end of the paragraph? Answer: both are still plagiarism, because your reader can’t tell where your thinking starts and others’ thinking stops. As a basic rule of thumb, “Readers must be able to tell as they are reading your paper exactly what information came from which source and what information is your contribution to the paper” (Hult 203). More on this later.
Why Does Plagiarism Matter?
A recent survey indicated that 53% of Who’s Who High Schoolers thought that plagiarism was no big deal (Cole 6). So why should the College care about it? Here are two great reasons:
* It poisons the environment—students who don’t cheat get alienated by students who do and get away with it; faculty can become distrustful of students and even disillusioned about teaching when constantly driven to track down students’ sources. It’s a lot easier, by the way, than most students think for faculty to recognize language and ideas that are not the student’s own. And now there are all those search engines provided by firms like Turnitin.com that have been generated in response to the Internet paper mill boom. Who wants another Cold War?
* Plagiarism defeats the purpose of going to college, which is learning how to think. You can’t learn to think by just copying others’ ideas; you need to learn to trust your own intelligence. Students’ panic about deadlines and their misunderstandings about assignments sometimes spur plagiarism. It’s a good bet that your professors would much rather take requests for help and extra time on assignments than have to go through the anguish of confronting students about plagiarized work.
So, plagiarism gets in the way of trust, fairness, intellectual development, and ultimately, the attitude toward learning that sets the tone for the college community.
Frequently Asked Questions
The following FAQs are not exhaustive. Consult a writing handbook for more information on such matters as paraphrasing, summarizing, and using various systems of citation. Some professors will hand out sheets with citation guidelines; as always, when in doubt, ask.
Q: Is it still plagiarism if I didn’t intentionally copy someone else’s work and present it as my own, that is, if I plagiarized it by accident?
A: Yes, it is still plagiarism. The College puts the burden of responsibility on students for knowing what plagiarism is, and then making the effort necessary to avoid it. Leaving out the quotation marks around someone else’s words or omitting the attribution after a summary of someone else’s theory may be just a mistake—a matter of inadequate documentation--but faculty can only judge what you turn in to them, not what you intended. Any good writing handbook will tell you how to cite sources and how to take notes in ways that guarantee that you will not accidentally plagiarize.
Q: If I include a list of works consulted at the end of my paper, doesn’t that cover it?
A: No. A works cited list (bibliography) tells your readers what you read but leaves them in the dark about how and where this material has been used in your paper. Putting one or more references at the end of a paragraph containing source material is a version of the same problem. The solution is to cite the source at the point that you quote or paraphrase or summarize it. To be even clearer about what comes from where, also use what are called in-text attributions. See the next FAQ on these.
Q: What is the best way to help my readers distinguish between what my sources are saying and what I’m saying?
A: Be overt. Tell your readers in the text of your paper, not just in citations, when you are drawing on someone else’s words, ideas, or information. Do this with phrases like “According to X . . .” or “as noted in X . . .”—so-called in-text attributions.
Q: Are there some kinds of information that I do not need to document?
A: Yes—common knowledge and facts you can find in almost any encyclopedia or basic reference text generally don’t need to be documented (e.g., John F. Kennedy became President of the U.S. in 1960). This distinction can get a little tricky because it isn’t always obvious what is and is not common knowledge. Often you need to spend some time in a discipline before you discover what others take to be known to all. When in doubt, cite the source.
Q: If I put the information from my sources into my own words, do I still need to include citations?
A: Yes. Sorry, but rewording someone else’s idea doesn’t make it your idea. Paraphrasing is a useful activity because it helps you to better understand what you are reading, but paraphrases and summaries have to be documented and carefully distinguished from ideas and information you are representing as your own.
Q: If I don’t actually know anything about the subject, is it okay to hand in a paper that is taken entirely from various sources?
A: It’s okay if (1) you document the borrowings, and (2) the assignment called for summary. Properly documented summarizing is better than plagiarizing, but most assignments call for something more. Often comparing and contrasting your sources will begin to give you ideas, so that you can have something to contribute. If you’re really stumped, go see the professor. You will also reduce the risk of plagiarism if you consult sources after—not before—you have done some preliminary thinking on the subject. If you have become somewhat invested in your own thoughts on the matter, you will be able to use the sources in a more active way, in effect, making them part of a dialogue (Rosenwasser and Stephen 220-221).
Q: Is it plagiarism if I include things in my paper that I thought of with another student or a member of my family?
A: The Academic Behavior Code, under the category called “collusion,” allows for students’ cooperative efforts only with the explicit consent of the instructor. The same general rule goes for plagiarizing yourself—that is, for submitting the same paper in more than one class. If you have questions about what constitutes collusion in a particular class, be sure to ask your professor.
Q: What about looking at secondary sources when my professor hasn’t asked me to? Is this a form of cheating?
A: It can be a form of cheating if the intent of the assignment was to get you to develop a particular kind of thinking skill. In this case, looking at others’ ideas may actually retard your learning process, and leave you feeling that you couldn’t possibly learn to arrive at ideas on your own. Professors usually look favorably on students who are willing to take the time to do extra reading on a subject, but it is essential that, even in class discussion, you make it clear that you have consulted outside sources. To conceal that fact is to present others’ ideas as your own. Even in class discussion, if you bring up an idea you picked up on the Internet, be sure to say so explicitly.
Cole, Sally, and Elizabeth Kiss. “What Can We Do About Student Cheating?” About Campus. May-June 2000: 5-12.
Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 5th Ed. New York: MLA, 1999.
Hult, Christine A. Researching and Writing Across the Curriculum. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1996.
Muhlenberg College Student Handbook, 2000-2001.
Rosenwasser, David, and Jill Stephen. Writing Analytically, 2nd ed. Ft. Worth: Harcourt, 2000.