Plagiarism may seem like a topic that we need not discuss among graduate students, but because of the type of scholarly and critical work that you do in graduate school, the discussion may, in fact, be all the more important.
You must be aware of both the definitions and penalties associated with academic dishonesty at Sam Houston State University. The University policy is available in the Student Guidelines.
What, then, is plagiarism?
The word comes from the Latin term for plundering or kidnapping, and plagiarism is any unacknowledged appropriation of another’s ideas or language. It can range from premeditated, calculated academic theft to simple lack of skill in presenting information. And thus the penalties range widely also, from a patient tutorial session and a request that one rewrite the offending passage or paper all the way up to the abrupt and ignominious termination of a graduate career.
The problem for you is that because graduate-level researching and writing demand deep immersion in the secondary sources that contribute to the critical conversation swirling around a work or author, there are more opportunities for inadvertent error and sloppy transcription—and more temptations for downright literary theft.
Be wary, then, of the thorny brakes and brambles of using secondary sources. Here, for example, are five ways that one can plagiarize (and this is not a “how-to”—it’s a “what to avoid”):
- word-for-word continuous copying of a source without quotation marks or mention of the author’s name;
- copying of many words or phrases without reference or quotation marks;
- copying of an occasional key word or phrase without acknowledging the author or using quotations marks;
- paraphrasing without mentioning the author’s name;
- taking an author’s ideas without acknowledging the source.
Unintentional plagiarism—is plagiarism nonetheless. And a bad paraphrase constitutes that very kind of plagiarism: When you a paraphrase while taking notes from a secondary article or book, you must be careful to avoid using the author’s wording inadvertently. Merely changing an occasional word, perhaps with the aid of your trusty thesaurus, or reversing the order of phrases or sentences does not constitute an adequate paraphrase.
Here is an example of an original source, in this case a passage from the famous Lionel Trilling about the famous “flawed” ending of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
In form and style Huckleberry Finn is an almost perfect work. Only one mistake has ever been charged against it, that it concludes with Tom Sawyer’s elaborate, too elaborate game of Jim’s escape. Certainly this episode is too long—in the original draft it was much longer—and certainly it is a falling-off, as almost anything would have to be, from the incidents of the river.
“The Greatness of Huckleberry Finn”
Here is a student paraphrase, taken from an undergraduate term paper (and therefore perhaps more obvious for our purposes):
Lionel Trilling says that in structure and style Huckleberry Finn is an almost perfect novel. Only one flaw has ever been directed against it, that it ends with Tom Sawyer’s elaborate game of Jim’s escape. This conclusion is too long and is certainly a letdown after the events of the river journey.
We should give the student some credit at the outset: She clearly announces Trilling’s name, so there is apparently no deliberate attempt to deceive. But this is obviously a poor paraphrase because it follows both the structure and the wording of the original too closely. This—let’s be charitable and call it lack of skill—constitutes plagiarism.
In order to avoid this kind of bad paraphrase, you may find it a good discipline to follow a time-honored method and paraphrase what you have read without looking at the source. After writing the paraphrase, look back at the original and make a critical comparison, checking for duplication of wording and accuracy in statement of the ideas. If you find that you have used more than two consecutive words from the original (with the exception of articles and prepositions), place them in quotation marks.
The formal way in which you bring sources into a paper may also pose threats of plagiarism, if you do not carefully distinguish between your own ideas and wording and those of the original. Often the problem is simply a mechanical one. If you are not already familiar with methods for citing sources in a paper—and we should not, perhaps, take anything for granted—your English 6397 course should take you systematically through the process and form prescribed by the MLA Handbook. If you do not yet own a copy of the latest edition of this handbook, buy one forthwith:
Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 7thed. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2009. [ISBN: 978-1-60329-024-1]
Gibaldi devotes his entire second chapter to a discussion of plagiarism and academic integrity, in much greater detail and with much clearer and more forceful articulation than we can offer here. Read it carefully.