How Not to Plagiarize

Written by Margaret Procter, Writing Support

From the Code of Behaviour on Academic Matters:

It shall be an offence for a student knowingly:

(d) to represent as one’s own any idea or expression of an idea or work of another in any academic examination or term test or in connection with any other form of academic work, i.e. to commit plagiarism.

Wherever in the Code an offence is described as depending on “knowing”, the offence shall likewise be deemed to have been committed if the person ought reasonably to have known.

You’ve already heard the warnings about plagiarism. Obviously it’s against the rules to buy essays or copy chunks from your friend’s homework, and it’s also plagiarism to borrow passages from books or articles or Web sites without identifying them. You know that the purpose of any paper is to show your own thinking, not create a patchwork of borrowed ideas. But you may still be wondering how you’re supposed to give proper references to all the reading you’ve done and all the ideas you’ve encountered.

The point of documenting sources in academic papers is not just to avoid unpleasant visits to the Dean’s office, but to demonstrate that you know what is going on in your field of study. It’s also a courtesy to your readers because it helps them consult the material you’ve found.  That’s especially important for Internet sources. So mentioning what others have said doesn’t lessen the credit you get for your own thinking—in fact, it adds to your credibility.

That’s not to say that questions about ownership of ideas are simple. For one thing, the different systems for typing up references are admittedly a nuisance. (The file Standard Documentation Formats explains basic formats.) But the real challenge is establishing the relationship of your thinking to the reading you’ve done (yes, that includes the Internet). Here are some common questions and basic answers.

  • Can’t I avoid problems just by listing every source in the bibliography? No, you need to integrate your acknowledgements into what you’re saying. Give the reference as soon as you’ve mentioned the idea you’re using, not just at the end of the paragraph. It’s often a good idea to name the authors (“X says” and “Y argues against X,”) and then indicate your own stand (“A more inclusive perspective, however, . . . “). The examples in this file and the one on Standard Documentation Formats show various wordings. Have a look at journal articles in your discipline to see how they refer to their sources.

  • If I put the ideas into my own words, do I still have to clog up my pages with all those names and numbers? Sorry—yes, you do. In academic papers, you need to keep mentioning authors and pages and dates to show how your ideas are related to those of the experts. It’s sensible to use your own words because that saves space and lets you connect ideas smoothly. But whether you quote a passage directly in quotation marks, paraphrase it closely in your own words, or just summarize it rapidly, you need to identify the source then and there. (That applies to Internet sources too: you still need author and date as well as title and URL.  The handout Standard Documentation Formats gives examples for a range of types.)

  • But I didn’t know anything about the subject until I started this paper. Do I have to give an acknowledgement for every point I make? You’re safer to over-reference than to skimp. But you can cut down the clutter by recognizing that some ideas are “common knowledge” in the field—that is, taken for granted by people knowledgeable about the topic. Facts easily found in standard reference books are considered common knowledge: the date of the Armistice for World War I, for example, or the present population of Canada. You don’t need to name a specific source for them, even if you learned them only when doing your research. In some disciplines, information covered in class lectures doesn’t need acknowledgement. Some interpretive ideas may also be so well accepted that they don’t need referencing: that Picasso is a distinguished modernist painter, for instance, or that smoking is harmful to health. Check with your professor or TA if you’re in doubt whether a specific point is considered common knowledge in your field.

  • How can I tell what’s my own idea and what has come from somebody else? Careful record-keeping helps. Always write down the author, title and publication information (including the specific identifying information for online publications) so you can attach names and dates to specific ideas. Taking good notes is also essential. Don’t paste passages from online sources into your draft: that’s asking for trouble. As you read any text—online or on the page—summarize useful points in your own words. If you record a phrase or sentence you might want to quote, put quotation marks around it in your notes to remind yourself that you’re copying the author’s exact words, whether electronically or in handwriting. If you record a distinctive phrase or sentence you might want to quote, put quotation marks around it in your notes to remind yourself that you’re copying the author’s exact words. And make a deliberate effort as you read to notice connections among ideas, especially contrasts and disagreements, and also to jot down questions or thoughts of your own. If you find as you write that you’re following one or two of your sources too closely, deliberately look back in your notes for other sources that take different views; then write about the differences and why they exist. See the advice file Taking Notes from Research Reading for more tips. 
  • So what exactly do I have to document? With experience reading academic prose, you’ll soon get used to the ways writers in your field refer to their sources. Here are the main times you should give acknowledgements. (You’ll notice many different formats in these examples. See the file on Standard Documentation Formats for advice on these systems.)

  1. Quotations, paraphrases, or summaries: If you use the author’s exact words, enclose them in quotation marks, or indent passages of more than four lines. (For more on the mechanics of quoting, visit our file on using quotations.) But it’s seldom worthwhile to use long quotations. In literary studies, quote a few words of the work you’re analysing and comment on them. In other disciplines, quote only when the original words are especially memorable. In most cases, use your own words to paraphrase or summarize the idea you want to discuss, emphasizing the points relevant to your argument. But be sure to name sources even when you are not using the exact original words. As in the examples below, it’s often a good idea to mention the author’s name. Mentioning the author’s name indicates where the borrowing starts and stops and gains you some reflected glory for responding to the experts.

    • e.g. As Morris puts it in The Human Zoo (1983), “we can always be sure that today’s daring innovation will be tomorrow’s respectability” (p. 189). [APA system]
    • e.g. Northrop Frye discusses comedy in terms of the spring spirit, which he defines as the infusion of new life and hope into human awareness of universal problems (Anatomy 163). The ending of The Tempest fits this pattern. [MLA system—short title to distinguish among different works by same author].
  2. Specific facts used as evidence for your argument or interpretation: First consider whether the facts you’re mentioning are “common knowledge” according to the definition in point 3 above; if so, you may not need to give a reference. But when you’re relying on facts that might be disputed within your discipline—perhaps newly published data—establish that they’re trustworthy by showing that you got them from an authoritative source.

    • e.g. In September 1914, more than 1300 skirmishes were recorded on the Western Front.8 [traditional endnote/footnote system]
    • e.g. Other recent researchers (4, 11, 12) confirm the findings that drug treatment has little effect in the treatment of pancreatic pseudocysts. [numbered-note system for biomedical sciences]
  3. Distinctive or authoritative ideas, whether you agree with them or not: The way you introduce a reference can indicate your attitude and lead into your own argument.

    • e.g. Writing in 1966, Ramsay Cook asserted that Canada was in a period of critical instability (174). That period is not yet over, judging by the same criteria of electoral changeability, economic uncertainty, and confusion in policy decisions. [new MLA system]
    • e.g. One writer (Von Daniken, 1970) even argues that the Great Pyramid was built for the practical purpose of guiding navigation. [APA system]