What's the big deal about plagiarism, anyway?

It's easy to unintentionally lift, or plagiarize, the words or ideas of another person. In high school, this may get you a strong lecture or a failing grade, but in college or the business world, the consequences could be much greater. The following hints should help you steer clear of plagiarism.

The Modern Language Association's Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, an excellent source of information about how to write and document research papers, explains that the term plagiarism comes from the Latin word for kidnapper and that "to plagiarize is to give the impression that you have written or thought of something that you have in fact borrowed from someone else."

While you might know of some students who do intentionally copy or buy papers from other students, books, or Web sites, a more common problem is a lack of information about what exactly plagiarism includes. With information readily available on the Internet, it is even more important to know how to properly give credit for work and research that is not your own.

Unintentional plagiarism happens when you have taken the notes for your paper from a number of sources and forget that what you wrote in your notes was a quote. When you write your paper, you may end up using the author's words and ideas, thinking they were your own. This is true even if you have paraphrased - that is, restated another person's ideas in your own words. Each thought or idea that is not your own must be clearly marked in your notes so that when you write your paper, you can give credit to the author whose information you are using.

Suppose you are writing an article about African Gray parrots and their ability to speak and put words together. You read an article by Laura Lyons about language and African Gray parrots, which states:

Clearly, recent research suggests that the African Gray is capable of more advanced patterns of reasoning than once thought.

You have several options if you want to include this idea.

  • Use the information exactly as it appears. Use quotation marks, and cite the author, publication date, and page number of your source:

    "Clearly, recent research suggests that the African Gray is capable of more advanced patterns of reasoning than once thought." (Lyons 2000, 22).

  • Document the sentence by mentioning the author in the actual body of your text, and then quoting:

    Lyons reports that "recent research suggests that the African Gray is capable of more advanced patterns of reasoning than once thought" (2000, 22).

    In this case, you need only to give the date and page number, because you already have alerted readers to the author.

  • Repeat the idea, paraphrasing it in your own words. You still must cite your source, even if you do not need to use quotation marks:

    New studies indicate that African Gray parrots are able to reason at a higher level than we have realized in the past (Lyons 2000, 22).

There are a number of different styles that you can use when documenting your sources; be sure to check with your teacher or professor about whether you are supposed to use footnotes or parenthetical notes (the Works Cited format) for your paper. No matter what documentation style you use, the ideas behind citing your sources and avoiding plagiarism are the same.