Check your Sources, and Check them Often: 4 Common Myths about Plagiarism
That’s right. It’s time to talk about the P-word. Plagiarism. The “Mufasa” (*shudder*) of academic writing. We’ve heard of it and know enough to avoid it like the plague.
But…what is it, really?
Most of us are aware of this career ruining, credibility wrecking beast, but few can identify the sneaky ways that plagiarism can manifest in our writing. The vast majority of people would agree that blatantly passing off another’s work as your own constitutes plagiarism, but beyond taking someone else’s book, essay, or article and slapping your own name on it, all’s fair in love and writing, right?
Not so much.
In fact, a lot of the plagiarized material that’s out there happens by accident. So, in case you weren’t wary enough of the plagiarism poltergeist, let’s talk about some misconceptions that have circulated in academic and writing communities.
Myth #1: If I didn’t mean to do it, it doesn’t count.
As a college instructor, I could have retired after a single semester if I had a dollar for every time a colleague or I heard a student say they didn’t mean to plagiarize, so they shouldn’t be held accountable for it. Okay, funding a full retirement is a bit hyperbolic, but you get the idea. It happens a lot. While intention might matter in terms of disciplinary consequences, the material nonetheless belongs to the original author.
Unintentional plagiarism is still plagiarism. If you present someone else’s content and forget to give them credit, the “oversight” still matters because it was not your idea and you delivered it to your audience without acknowledging that.
Now, before you panic—no one is asking you to provide a shout-out with the date and page numbers of the public speaking book you read to make sure you rocked your toast at Cousin Tony’s wedding last year. But, if you’re going to give a PowerPoint presentation on the history of Microsoft, it’s safe to say Bill Gates is expecting a footnote.
So, now that we’ve gotten that formality out of the way, let’s talk about a closely related myth that plagiarists are evil monsters running around usurping everyone’s research by reading it and automatically claiming the intellectual property.
Myth #2: Plagiarists are always trying to cheat for their own self-interest.
Yes, there are people who try to beat the system for personal gain, whether that means buying an essay from a classmate or content mill to get an easy A or lifting large portions of text verbatim from an outside source. However, in many cases, the plagiarist is making a good faith effort, but gets lazy or simply doesn’t know the “rules.”
In fact, one of the most common requests I get from clients is to make sure that they have formatted their citations and reference entries according to the designated style guide.
Anxiety, thy name is plagiarism!
The threat of a plagiarism accusation is anxiety-provoking, and academic scholars are especially prone to this concern. Professors require citations for everything, and students must cite things like their grade depends on it—because many times, it does. Academic honesty policies run the gamut from zero tolerance to full instructor discretion, and many institutions use the full arsenal of tools at their disposal to ensure every student submission is original.
Electronic plagiarism checkers are commonplace at colleges and universities, and students often face a great deal of pressure to please the widgets or bots generating reports on “acceptable” levels of material that can be identified from other sources after comparing an entry to all sources and submissions available in its scope.
Sometimes these tools do more harm than good, causing students to spend time negotiating with the originality ranking at the cost of quality prose or go out of their way to rearrange already paraphrased content, hack up quality quotations, and cover their bases with needless documentation that adds nothing to their educational outcomes.
For example, I once had a student cite the entire dictionary on his reference page, which had me second guessing my plagiarism policies—and my life choices—for a brief moment.
I mean, technically, he didn’t invent the words he used; he merely rearranged existing words to express his ideas, so I couldn’t really argue with him, and I always encourage people to err on the side of over-citing. I suppose I should thank my lucky stars there wasn’t a corresponding in-text citation for every. single. word.
The point is that most people want to create original content, but many struggle with the line between what needs to be cited and what does not.
Myth #3: If I can remember it, then it is mine.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I once witnessed a conversation between another teacher and a student who argued that he didn’t have to cite anything he learned in school because it came from his brain and, therefore, it was his idea. If he could remember it, it was his material.
This is simply not true. Common knowledge is information that an average person could reliably know without having to consult additional resources. For a general audience in the United States, common knowledge would include things like the sky is blue, typical dogs and cats are pets with four legs and a tail, and public schools dismiss for summer vacations. These are commonly known facts and do not require outside source attribution.
However, though I might be able to write from memory about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it would be prudent of me to track down the source(s) of that knowledge because it did not originate in my own brain—I learned it from other people in the course of my education.
Now, discussing that hierarchy in terms of a survey I personally conducted to find out whether people feel more motivated by physiological needs or a sense of belonging is a different case. Once an original author’s work is established and they are credited, anything a writer does to provide commentary on that work or explain their own expansion of the idea does not need to be attributed to the original source—that thought or contribution rests with them.
When the next person comes along and references my application of Maslow’s theory to their study of physiological needs versus belonging, they must cite both me and Maslow in some capacity.
Ah, the sweet sounds of knowledge being made.
Myth #4: To avoid plagiarism, I must use 100% of my own material.
False. This is where citations come in.
Though it’s always a good idea to include your own commentary and analysis in an academic paper to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of the topic, it’s equally important to support those claims with evidence!
Your field or university likely requires compliance with a style guide or citation system to give proper credit to outside sources that you use. Consult this guide, love this guide, become this guide. It is your new best friend.
And don’t fall into the trap of thinking an author doesn’t need credit if you don’t use their exact wording. Paraphrased material still needs to be cited.
If you’re worried about whether you’re giving proper credit to all the sources in your work, the answer is coming!
I’ll be creating training on how to avoid accidental plagiarism and what to do instead. To be the first to know when it becomes available, sign up for our e-mail list here!