Avoiding Plagiarism
Peter Suber, Philosophy Department, Earlham College

Plagiarism is to borrow the ideas or language of others and to present them as your own. As an academic offense, it ranks with the falsification of scientific data. It is both a kind of lying and a kind of stealing. It misleads readers and deprives other authors of credit. It also subverts the goals of education and scholarship by trying to fool the reader rather than educate the student. To avoid plagiarism, you needn't stop borrowing, and shouldn't. You only have to start giving credit to those from whom you borrow. This hand-out should help you figure out when and how.

  1. Cite your sources. This holds whether whether you quote a source, paraphrase it, or borrow ideas from it without quoting or paraphrasing. It holds whether your sources are published or unpublished, in print, online, or oral. A citation can be a footnote, an endnote, or a parenthetical note within your main text.

    Citation formats vary from discipline to discipline. I care much more about the information in a citation than the format. The citation should tell us who deserves credit (the author) and how to find the work in case we want to follow up your reference or discussion (the title, publisher, date, pages). For online works, give as many of these bits of information as you can find, as well as the URL.

    Citations serve many purposes. One is to give credit where credit is due. Another is to help your readers verify what you're saying or deepen the inquiry. In this way, plagiarism that suppresses citations is not only a lie to readers and an injustice to authors, but an impediment to inquiry.

  2. Mark your quotations. Mark quotations with quotation marks or indentation. You may quote whole sentences, useful phrases, or striking terms, depending on your purposes and style. But whenever the language is not your own, you must mark it as a quotation.

  3. Paraphrase with care. To paraphrase is to restate another person's ideas in your own words. Paraphrasing raises some of the most difficult problems in the avoidance of plagiarism.

    If the language of your paraphrase is very close to the original, then to drop the quotation marks and pretend the language is your own is still misleading and dishonest. It is still plagiarism. This is so even if you include a citation. A good paraphrase goes well beyond superficial tinkering with the original language.

    After paraphrasing a passage or idea, check the original to make certain (1) that you have not inadvertently reproduced the original language, and (2) that you have captured the point accurately.

    Paraphrases must still cite the original to avoid plagiarism. The original author gave you both an idea and an expression of an idea. Even if you borrow only the idea without the expression, the author still deserves credit.

  4. Assume that assignments are solo efforts. Group assignments and other exceptions usually carry an explicit label. If you are in doubt, ask your teacher.

    If a paper is to be a solo effort, you can still learn from classmates in discussion (in and out of class), from peers on internet discussion groups, from books, or from any other source. Just be careful to give credit to those whose ideas or language you borrow.

  5. Don't be afraid of research. Research in which you consult and learn from sources of all kinds is compatible with a strict watchfulness for plagiarism. If you borrow something from another, you should cite that person, and follow the rules about quotation and paraphrase. After a point, you will have thoughts of your own that are difficult to trace back to any particular source or inspiration. They are your own, and need not be cited. It has been said that good scholars are like bees:  they collect pollen from all over, but they turn it into their own honey.

  6. Don't be afraid of legitimate help. Similarly, you should not be afraid to seek or accept legitimate help from tutors and friends. If a friend reads your paper and gives you helpful criticism, or if a tutor helps you with your writing, you can benefit from that help without stepping over the line of plagiarism. The best way is to hear the criticism, the suggestions, or the principles of your "critics," to understand them, and to revise your paper in light of your understanding. Whether a paragraph rewritten with the help of a friend or tutor is really your own can be a very difficult question requiring fine judgment. It is your responsibility to use your judgment to prevent overeager helpers from depriving you of authorship.

    Similarly, when asked to give help, make sure that those you help understand the difference between plagiarism and legitimate help and discussion. Those who knowingly provide material for illegitimate or unattributed copying are as guilty as the plagiarists who copy it.

  7. Plagiarism can be deliberate or inadvertent. If you take haphazard notes from books and journal articles and later use your notes in a paper, you might accidentally incorporate the ideas or language of another author as if they were your own. You might not realize that you are doing this, you might not remember whether a passage is a direct quotation, or you might not even remember whether a particular idea is your own or from another source. You may feel innocent, but you would still be guilty of plagiarism. To avoid inadvertent plagiarism, make it a habit to use quotation marks and document sources in your notes.

  8. I can help. When in doubt, err on the side of citing more rather than less. When you are in a difficult, gray area, I'd be very happy to advise you.

This hand-out is based on an earlier version that I wrote for Earlham's Humanities Handbook.

Ribbon] Peter Suber, Department of Philosophy, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, 47374, U.S.A.
peters@earlham.edu. Copyright © 2002, Peter Suber.