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How to avoid plagiarism

LFS Plagiarism.jpg

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Brian Smith

Copying ≠ Writing

Here is a nice little poem that I wrote:

Twinkle twinkle little star,
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky…

Well, yes, I wrote it down, but I didn’t actually write it. I plagiarized it: I copied it from someone else’s text and presented it as my own composition.

Solution: put quoted material in quotation marks and show the source:

“Twinkle twinkle little star,
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky…”

(From “The star” by Jane Taylor, published in Rhymes for the Nursery, George S. Appleton, Philadelphia, 1806.)

Copying + Altering ≠ Writing

How about this, then?

Twinkle twinkle tiny star,
How I ponder what you are.
There above the world quite high,
Like a jewel in the sky …

This isn’t word-for-word from some other source, so I must have written it, right? Well, not really: I just copied it and made some alterations. A plagiarism search-engine might not pick it up, but it is still not my composition, and claiming it as mine constitutes plagiarism.

Solution: Don’t copy and alter. Instead, write “from scratch” in your own words.

Parodying can = Writing (if readers get the joke)

OK, try this:

Twinkle twinkle little star,
How I wonder what you are:
Landsat, Telsat, or climatic?
Orbiting or geostatic?
When you’re finished playing Star-Trek,
Fall in some one else’s Ar-Tek.

I really did write this one. In a sense it was “copied with alterations”, but my intention was that readers would recognize it as a deliberate parody and chuckle. But when markers read essays that are close to someone else’s text, they don’t chuckle.

Solution: Assume that your reader has zero sense of humour. Put all quoted material in quotation marks and acknowledge that the piece is based on another source.

Group writing ≠ individual writing

Sometimes people – students, scientists, policy writers – work together to write a “collaborative” paper. This is great, as long as the resulting work is fully acknowledged to be a group effort. But if different group members hand in the report as their individual work, or even if two group members use some of the the same sentences in their individual essays, it is likely to be seen as plagiarism.

Solution: What is written by a group must be fully acknowledged as authored by the group, not by any individual member.

Additional note

In science, the question of who should be listed as a co-author of a paper is complex. Disagreements over co-authorship have led to much debate, many severed relationships and even a few murders. ☹☹☹ Co-authorship is a separate issue that needs serious consideration by anyone who engages in joint publications.

Group research ≠ plagiarism as long as…

Sometimes students work together to research a topic even though they are required to submit individual essays. Working cooperatively and sharing knowledge with others is great as long as the individual essays are then written separately.

Unintended plagiarism is still plagiarism

Sometimes students really think they have composed an essay when bingo: a marker finds a sentence here and a half-sentence there that are word-for-word, or nearly word-for-word, from another source. The result: a charge of plagiarism. The problem is often that the student copied bits of text into some rough notes, and then used these notes to write the essay. The plagiarism is unintentional, but it is still plagiarism.

Solutions: if you make rough notes, put quotations around anything you have cut and pasted, and keep careful notes on sources for anything you have copied or paraphrased. Then write the essay “from scratch”, without taking anything verbatim from rough notes that may contain copied material.

Can plagiarism happen accidentally?

In theory, you might compose a sentence that has already been written by someone else, but the risk is small. To illustrate this, I took sentences from one of my own essays and pasted them (in quotation marks) into Google Scholar. In every case, Google Scholar could not find the exact sentence in any other document. I then started chopping words off the end of the sentences to see how many words I had to drop before Google Scholar would find other hits. Here are some results:

  • "In the industrialized countries, the increased production was accomplished by significant changes in production methods … " Google Scholar declared this sentence unique after the first 7 words; that is, the words “In the industrialized countries, the increased production” was found only in my paper.
  • Programs of standards, inspection and certification are likely to encounter problems …” Google Scholar found no other instances of this sentence even after I reduced it to the first 5 words: “Programs of standards, inspection and …”
  • During the half century when these changes were occurring, the industrialized countries …" This was unique after the first 6 words, ending in “these
  • The situation varies from country to country but in general the increase in animal production … ” . This was found to be unique after the first 12 words, ending in “the increase”. It was the longest example I found.*

Conclusion: except when using common phrases like “the United States of America”, you are unlikely to compose more than 8-10 words that are verbatim from someone else’s text. So relax: if you really compose from scratch, the chance of being accused of plagiarism are very small.

And when you find a sentence like this:

Other extrinsic factors such as climate or intrinsic factors such as fungal strain specificity, strain variation, and instability of toxigenic properties are more difficult to control.

which was originally published by Hussein and Brasel (2001)[1] and then appeared in two different scientific papers by different authors in different journals, well, excuse me but…

Avoiding plagiarism ≠ citing sources correctly

One more thing: to show my skill as an astronomer, I have made some observations of the stars and planets and have concluded that the sun is located in the centre of the solar system. Impressive, eh? Except that this idea was published by Copernicus in 1543. What Copernicus actually wrote was, “In medio uero omnium residet Sol,” so I cannot be accused of copying his text word-for-word. Claiming his idea as my own is not strictly plagiarism; it’s piracy.

Solution: As well as avoiding plagiarism, learn the rules of your field on when and how to cite sources. But that issue goes beyond the scope of this short article.

And finally…

This text is not subject to copyright. You are welcome to copy and use it. Feel free to put it on websites, add it to course readings, or print it and make paper airplanes. Just cite the source and all is well.

I also welcome comments and suggestions at dfraser@mail.ubc.ca, especially if they might lead to an improved version in the future.

David Fraser
Animal Welfare Program
University of British Columbia
January 15, 2014

Source: Fraser, D. 2014. How to avoid plagiarism. How to avoid plagiarism. How to avoid plagiarism http://wiki.ubc.ca/LFS:Plagiarism

  1. Quoted from page 101 of Hussein, H.S. and Brasel, J.M., 2001. Toxicity, metabolism, and impact of mycotoxins on humans and animals. Toxicology 167, 101–134.