We hear the word all the time. Plagiarism. It’s something to be avoided, like death and taxes. Every student has been told time and time not to plagiarize when writing papers. Any work submitted to any audience must be free of plagiarism. But what does that mean? Too many students are confused about what does and does not constitute plagiarism. Unfortunately, most of the time they’re not even aware that they are committing plagiarism. And that is really bad news, because the costs of plagiarism can range from a failing grade on a paper to a failing grade in a class to expulsion from school. A steep price to pay for not knowing the rules.
Plagiarism is simply using someone else’s words without saying that they are someone else’s words. Using those words isn’t necessarily bad in and of itself (unless you do it all the time). It’s passing them off as your own that is the no-no. As you’re surfing the web, when you see a phrase that says just what you want to say, in just the way that you want to say it, make sure that when you highlight those words, you include the source of that sentiment. If you hear Jon Stewart riff on Mitt Romney in a memorable way, and you decide to include that in the term paper you’re writing, you must give Mr. Stewart credit for his bon mot. The same goes when your witty roommate sums up the causes of the Civil War in three pithy statements. If the words aren’t yours, you must say so.
You are not exempted just because the phrase you chose is in the public domain. It doesn’t matter whether you are quoting Julius Caesar, Confucius, or someone who gifted an excellent description to the Creative Commons. If you did not dream up a particular set of words in a particular order, you must state who did. Blogs count, as well. Any writing, speech, statement, joke, any utterance of any kind, anywhere, in any medium counts. If it’s not yours, you must state that fact.
So, how do you avoid inadvertently quoting someone when you are doing research? Get out of the habit of cut and paste, unless a phrase is so pithy that it just can’t be said any differently. Notice that I said “differently”, not “better”. Just because you are not as smooth as James Bond, as funny as Stephen Colbert, or as erudite as Thomas Jefferson does not mean that you are not able to express that same thought in an alternate way. When you come across a statement that captures what you want to say, immediately rewrite it in your own words. Even if what comes out isn’t exactly what you want, you can always edit it later. The important thing is to move away from anyone else’s language.
When your professor assigns you a writing assignment, what he really wants to hear is your voice, not anyone else’s. He looking to see if you comprehend the material. And the only way to do that is to say it all yourself.