For three years, I taught women's studies to undergraduates. I believed that academic integrity was such an important part of being a student that I set aside an entire class each quarter to talk just about what plagiarism is in more detail than most of them were likely to have encountered before.
The class would begin with a quiz that would later be self-graded as a group (everyone who was present that day would receive full credit). Ten questions on different types of violations of academic integrity. Some were relatively obvious, some were subjective, and some contained information that always sparked discussion. For instance, different students had been taught different guidelines as to how much of another author's work could be used before it had to be cited: some had been told that there is no minimum number of words; others had been told that a two-word phrase didn't have to be put in quotation marks.
There were a few specific subjects that surprised the students, however, and I'd like to discuss them here.
1) Reusing your own work without attribution
It is possible to plagiarize yourself. If you're using text that you used in a previous paper—not just writing about the same topic, but actually using the same words—then the appropriate way to do so is to put your previously submitted material within quotation marks and to cite it just like you'd cite a published author.
When we discussed this in class, students would respond with, "But how can I cite myself? I'm not an authority on the subject, I'm just a student," and, "But I've had professors tell me I could reuse another class's paper if it fit the topic."
Who is and isn't an authority on a subject isn't determined by the degrees one holds; it is judged on a sliding scale by any reader who chooses whether or not to be convinced by your research or your arguments. Your writing establishes you as someone able to perform research on the topic or able to form conclusions about it. The fact that you wrote about it before doesn't make it factually true, but the same could be said about nearly any book you can find in the library. Citing yourself lets you do the following with the quoted material:
As for being told in the past that you can reuse the same material, I can only say that individual instructors' allowances can't be interpreted as overarching rules. That is, your professor is not speaking for everyone. You can certainly ask a professor if you can do it, and occasionally you might get a yes, but it's not (or shouldn't be) the norm, and doing it without explicit permission is a big no-no.
2) Failing to properly cite sources within sources
There are a couple of ways this can be done incorrectly. In one version of this, you read a book or article in which the author quotes and cites another source, and you use the second-hand source based on how it appears in the book or article that is in front of you, without indicating the source that's actually in your hands (or on your monitor). In another version, you attribute only the source that you're looking at and not the quoted author.
Ideally, when you find a quoted source that would be perfect for your immediate needs, you should see if you can obtain the quoted source itself. It might apply an entirely different context to the quoted material from what you see in the source in front of you. The intermediary source might have introduced errors in the form of typos or misattributed page numbers. If you simply quote straight from it, you'll be perpetuating the same errors.
Sometimes that's not possible, though, and when you have no access to the quoted source, you should be attributing both the innie and the outie—that is, both the quoted source and the source it's quoted in. Citation styles will usually give you some way to do that, often some form of "(Smith 1987, as quoted in Jones 2009)." If your citation style uses footnotes instead of author-date citations, then you can provide an even more thorough explanation of the context for the quotation.
I encountered still another version of the error in which the author was quoting quoted material and appropriately identifying the speakers but not the writers quoting them. This fact was betrayed by the inclusion of text at intervals between sections of the quotations. These bits of text had been pulled verbatim from the sources in which she'd found the quotes. To give this a simplified illustration, let's say I put into a post the following:
As written, the quote implies that the words "he said" are mine and the part in quotation marks was said by someone else, in this case Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In truth, I took the whole sentence from Ralph Waldo Emerson, and I really should have written:
Note the single quotation marks within the double ones. Although Emerson is quoting Coleridge, I'm also quoting Emerson, and he needs to be attributed even though all I took from him were the words "he said" (in the original text, it was a much wordier phrase).
3) Word-for-word paraphrasing
I recently gave a talk at one of my alma maters, the Ohio State University, about the fundamentals of writing for the classroom. During the Q&A session, one of the students at the talk asked if I had recommendations for sources on paraphrasing.
I wasn't really sure where to go with that because I didn't want to ask her what she planned to use the paraphrasing for, so I talked about using paraphrasing toward becoming a stronger writer and more analytical reader by attempting to rewrite difficult passages in three different ways, using a thesaurus in combination with a dictionary when necessary. This would be a use of paraphrase as exercise, not as part of completing an assignment you'll be turning in.
I hastened to note, as well, that if you paraphrase a source in a paper, the source still needs to be cited. Even if you're not using an author's words, you will still be using his or her ideas. Even a sentence structure that mimics another author's will lead you to mimic their thoughts instead of applying them.
If I could revise anything I said during that presentation, it would be my answer to that student's question. I would have suggested that when you feel you need to use more of an author's words than you're comfortable quoting (we've all been there, when the source was so perfect, you would quote a whole page if you could), don't think in terms of paraphrasing but in terms of interpreting the author's text within the context of your paper. If that proves to be a struggle, then it's possible that your own central idea or argument isn't very well developed yet. Take some time away from the source you're trying to apply and write out a paragraph or a scatter plot or an outline—or record yourself brainstorming out loud—about your idea on its own, and then try pointing it back to the author.
Different people will find different writing methods work for them. What you don't want to do is build your own argument on a passage you rewrote from the original author, with new words substituted for the old ones. That's not productive paraphrasing, and even if you cite the source, you won't have engaged with it actively enough to apply a thorough interpretation that will support your ideas effectively.
Do you have any little-known forms of plagiarism you'd like to add? Experience with those I've listed? Please share in the comments!
* Ralph Waldo Emerson, "First Visit to England," in Essays and English Traits, vol. 5, The Harvard Classics, Charles W. Eliot, ed. (Boston: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909), p. 331.
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