How do we answer the question “is it plagiarism”?
The clearest way to use another’s words correctly is quotation. However, there are many good reasons not to simply string together one quote after another. Paraphrase and summarization are key skills for any scholar, and avoid that nagging question: is it plagiarism?
When seeking guidance, seek websites which offer examples. You may be surprised at how drastically one must paraphrase to respond to the troubling question “is it plagiarism” in the negative.
Useful websites offering guidance on paraphrasing
A very useful webpage is the Purdue University Owl.Their commonsense approach to the shifting target which constitutes paraphrasing is intuitively sensible:
- Is it plagiarism if it uses your own synonyms? Maybe not, but it still needs attribution…
- Is it plagiarism if it condenses a broader segment of the source? Maybe not, but it still needs attribution…
- Is it plagiarism if it is shorter than the original? Maybe not, but it still needs attribution…
- Is it plagiarism if you paraphrased with attribution? Usually not, but see above regarding the quality of paraphrase…
- Is it plagiarism if you quoted with attribution? Usually not, but too much constitutes poor writing and scholarship.
Another webpage, from Mcgraw-Hill, gives some tough, real world examples, using the Federalist Papers.
This raises some more questions:
- Is it plagiarism if the other’s idea is not attributed, in-text, or by footnote? Yes!
- Is it plagiarism if sentences show the same structure? Could be…better rephrase or quote, with attribution.
- Is it plagiarism if the word order is similar? Could well be…best to rephrase or quote outright and cite correctly.
- Is it plagiarism if the style of citation is incorrect for the applicable style manual? Yes!
- Is it plagiarism if page numbers have been omitted? Yes!
- Is it plagiarism if the source does not appear in the reference list?
The Purdue OWL guide, offers the following useful suggestions for paraphrasing:
- Reread for comprehension
- Paraphrase without looking
- Annotate for intended use and subject
- Revisit passage for completeness
- Note in quotes unique words or phrases
- Record bibliographic info
Complexities of scientific attribution
It seems clear that the question “is it plagiarism” is answered differently in the humanities and in the hard sciences. There is a rather rigid style expected from, for example, medical doctors and lab scientists. This leads to a somewhat repetitive feel to many scientific articles.
Science is also legitimately and quintessentially an accretive field, wherein each researcher builds upon the results of his/her predecessors. This can put researchers in danger of circular reasoning. When, for example, a study is based on publicly published standard measures, and then these results are accepted as corroboration of those same published measures, that can be circular reasoning. And this has happened!
The Indiana University webpage offers cautionary examples:
- Is it plagiarism when you “did not mean to”? Yessiree!
- Is it plagiarism when you forgot? Yessireee!
- Is it plagiarism when an idea is not original with you, but you can’t remember where you heard it and you ran out of time?
Could be! Avoid trouble, find a reference and cite and attribute correctly! What is the lesson here? If you have to ask “is it plagiarism”, it might well be. You know what to do – cite, attribute, reference and give credit where it is due. Someday, your own work could be the temptation for someone else to use your ideas.