Imagine receiving an email that your professor ran your paper through anti-plagiarism software and found some questionable passages. He or she is notifying you that your paper is being submitted to the university to investigate possible plagiarism.
In this scenario, you’d probably think “Why am I in trouble for plagiarizing? I paraphrased my work! I used my own words and even provided citations!”
For many students, the standards of what qualifies as original work are unclear. Every academic institution likely has an extensive plagiarism policy in place and holds students to rigorous expectations. Yet, many of these concepts can seem nebulous, especially if you’ve been out of school for a while.
Here’s a quick refresher:
Be cautious when paraphrasing
Information drawn from sources should be presented entirely in your own words, rather than changing a few words within the sentence someone else wrote. Similarly, you shouldn’t rely too heavily on citations to attempt and justify paraphrased information.
But wait, doesn’t providing a citation make it legal, you may ask? After all, I’m not stealing the author’s work and presenting it as my own.
Even if you properly cite the author, you must also keep in mind that the objective of any academic activity is to evaluate your understanding of the core concepts and material. Your professor cannot assess what you’ve learned if you copy and paste a hybrid of source material, even if it’s properly cited. If your professor doesn’t know you understand the material, how can he or she award you points for having met the course goals?
In other words, the safest route for avoiding plagiarism is to gather as much information as possible in the course of your research and analyze it in an individual way, using citations primarily to strengthen your logic or exemplify a main point. In general, relying entirely on citations lends itself more easily to plagiarism.
Don’t copy or steal from others
To state the obvious, copying large segments of text, blatant parallel structure or buying a paper online are all inexcusable forms of plagiarism. If you have the slightest inkling that one of your decisions may qualify as plagiarism, it’s best to rework the section or entire assignment to steer clear. Consider asking your instructor directly about specific assignment guidelines or to clarify cases where you are uncertain of how to appropriately cite sources.
In many cases, even if citations are used correctly, overusing them can weaken an assignment and affect the grade overall.
Let’s say your professor sees an entire discussion post has been copied and pasted from a website or textbook. If it’s properly cited, your work may not necessarily be considered “stolen,” but (and this is a big but!) if the student hasn’t demonstrated his or her analysis of the material then it likely won’t demonstrate a strong enough understanding to earn high marks. Since your work failed to meet the academic objectives, it won’t earn an exemplary grade.
As for whether or not over-citing is definitively considered plagiarism, consider the University of Illinois at Chicago’s definition of plagiarism includes; “cites sources but relies too heavily on text’s original wording and/or structure” and “cites sources but doesn’t offer anything original.
So yes, even if you provide citations, you are at risk. If you do not offer anything original and show that you understand the material, you may be plagiarizing!
Ed Keim has been an adjunct professor for several years at various universities and has over twenty years of experience as a half- and full-time university student. His professional experiences include serving as a weapons system technician on F14A Tomcat aircraft, operating heavy construction equipment in the environmental remediation field, and repairing, and later managing, electronic manufacturing production lines for a large Japanese electronics firm. He has also years of experience running his own business consulting firm and tax preparation.
His hobbies include herpetology and his office is populated by several reptilian friends, including two ball pythons who have been with him for over 25 years, a baby reticulated python, an albino Columbian redtail boa constrictor, a 10 foot Burmese python, and an Argentine tegu the size of a Chihuahua.
[i]University of Illinois at Chicago (n.d.). The reality and solution of college plagiarism. Retrieved from http://healthinformatics.uic.edu/resources/infographics/the-reality-and-solution-of-college-plagiarism-infographic/