Thursday, October 6, 2011

What is Plagiarism? (and how do we avoid it?)

Plagiarism is one of those "heavy" words in an English course - or in any humanities course.  We are constantly told that we must avoid it, and yet we are using a genre studies model which calls for collaboration and research.  This is why today we're going to talk a bit about what plagiarism is (and what it isn't).

So What Is Plagiarism?
Essentially, plagiarism is the unauthorized reproduction of scholarly, artistic, or commercial material.  It is best known as copying the work of others without permission, but plagiarism can also occur if:

  • You copy your own work (e.g. turning in the same paper for two different courses)
  • Wimply "rewrite" someone else's work without providing substantial new ideas
  • Copy large sections of someone else's work with their permission (yes, it's complicated...)
For a complex look at the definition of plagiarism and accompanying issues, visit

Why is Plagiarism a Problem?
Plagiarism is a problem for scholarship because there are some people who hope to get ahead by copying the work of others or by reusing the best of their own work.  It's a problem for discourse, though, because the exchange of ideas depends upon our sharing the ideas of others with our readers.  We are never writing or producing art in a vacuum - we are constantly taking in ideas from others, evaluating them, and then presenting them alongside our own contributions.  Sometimes, there is confusion between when this is appropriate and when it isn't.

In general, you want to present a significantly new "take" on your subject whenever you are submitting a new work for class or publication.  And you want to make sure to reference the people and works which have influenced your thinking on the subject.

Why Do We Reference Material?
References are used to establish your knowledge and credibility.  By referencing others, you show that you are aware of their work and familiar with the subject you're discussing.  By doing this, you also help others find resources related to your topic.  The vast majority of researchers don't check the citations of other authors in the faint hope of saying "getcha!" - rather, they're looking for related resources to help in their own research.

Citation: Your Key to Referencing Material
When you discussed citation in high school, you may have been instructed to follow MLA (Modern Language Association) or APA (American Psychological Association) guidelines.  Although the guidelines provide consistent formatting, it's better to keep in mind certain critical aspects of all citations:
  • Always give credit to those who have provided you information.
  • Provide specific source information that your readers could check the citation through their own research.
  • Provide context regarding what your reference says - you want your readers to be able to judge whether or not they'd want to visit that source for further research.
  • If you copy text verbatim, be sure to enclose their exact words inside quotation marks.  (e.g. "Do, or do not.  There is no try," (Master Yoda).
Uncertain of how to cite your sources?  The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) provides helpful guidance - check the contents page to the left for different aspects of MLA style.  EasyBib offers a free citation generator.

Copyright: Fair Use versus Plagiarism
To help us see where collaboration ends and plagiarism begins, let's consider the case of Fair Use.  Under the guidelines of federal copyright laws, there are four areas to consider when deciding whether you're using someone else's work fairly (without the need for prior authorization). In general, Fair Use requires that you meet at least two or more of these requirements:
  1. Purpose and Character of the Use: For the Public Good is more acceptable than if it's for Personal Gain.
  2. Nature of the Copied Work: "Facts" about our world (such as statistics) aren't really "owned," so it's usually okay to report them. However, artistic or literary works (which fall under copyright laws) cannot be copied unless they are in the public domain.
  3. Amount and Substantiality: If you're reproducing only a small percentage of the total work (usually 10% or less), it's often all right (e.g. brief movie clips, a page from a novel). However, reproducing all 14 lines of a sonnet would be considered intellectual theft.
  4. Effect on the Work's Value: Sharing clips from the middle of a movie wouldn't stop people from seeing the movie - sharing clips of the last five minutes (and ruining the ending) probably would.

Plagiarism is a complex issue, so I'd like you to work in your groups to come up with questions about references, citation, and fair use.  Please post your questions below (along with answers or suggestions.)

Case Studies in Plagiarism
On your Project 2 Blogs, you're going to create a "mini unit" on what plagiarism is and how to avoid it.  For the mini-unit, I'd like you to present a case study you've found online.  Describe the individual involved, tell the story of the situation (was it on purpose?  accidental?  extenuating circumstances?), and then describe what the individual could have done differently.  Each group member will write up one post describing one of the online sources you've found, and then you'll each write up a different aspect of the event.

Note that it may be difficult finding good examples - it will be harder still to find a detailed example.  I recommend that each person find one example, post the example to your blog, and then have the group choose which of the examples to focus on.  You may need to speculate regarding some circumstances - just be sure to cite the sources you do find and to indicate when you are speculating.  To avoid choosing the same example as another group, try finding the most unique examples you can.  And note also that not all accusations of plagiarism are valid - sometimes accusations are mistaken or misguided.  (Each group member should post two short posts on this topic, about one paragraph each).


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