Plagiarism is a serious offense; it involves passing off someone else's work as your own. The Communication Department prides itself on accuracy and credibility, and sees plagiarism not only as cheating, but as a violation of basic professional principles of integrity and honesty.
Becoming a good researcher/writer requires you to learn how to cite sources and avoid plagiarism.
Adapted from MediaWriting (2nd ed.) by R.W. Whitaker, J.R. Ramsey, and R.D. Smith. 2004, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. This information is presented here as a service to all Communication students, in an effort to help them avoid negligent or accidental plagiarism and to maintain high standards of professionalism and integrity in their writing, both academic and applied. See additional information on avoiding plagiarism at the E. H. Butler Library Web site.
Plagiarism is the offense of presenting somebody else's words as your own. Academically, it is cheating. Journalistically, it is fraud. Whether intentional or the result of negligence, plagiarism is a serious breach of professionalism. It is a specific violation of the code of ethics of organizations such as the Society of Professional Journalists and the Public Relations Society of America.
Writing coach Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute calls plagiarism the "unoriginal sin." His institute colleague Christopher Scanlan sees it as a matter of honor. "If you plagiarize, you dishonor yourself because you are dishonoring another writer," Scanlan was quoted in the Writer magazine ("Tips for Avoiding Plagiarism," January 2001, Vol. 114, No. 1, p. 8). We'd add that it also dishonors your readers, perhaps the gravest offense of all.
In addition to being an unoriginal sin, plagiarism also unfortunately is a common one. Every year, it seems, some otherwise respected newspaper or magazine writers are accused of plagiarism. Meanwhile, colleges and universities are beefing up both their warnings about and penalties for plagiarism, which seems to be becoming more prevalent on campuses.
Sometimes, the boundaries of plagiarism are fuzzy. The writer's role is to share information. Specifically, the work of a reporter or public relations writer is to tell readers what newsmakers are thinking and saying. In the academic world, meanwhile, ideas are meant to circulate freely, with new knowledge consciously building on the past. Nevertheless, in both fields, the credibility of the writer is enhanced by the honest indication of the source of information. Indeed, readers are more likely to feel that a writer has done a thorough job when a variety of sources are cited in a piece of writing, whether a news article or a term paper.
People who commonly review writing - teachers and editors, for example - observe that plagiarism can fall into several categories.
Plagiarism is about co-opting somebody else's work as your own, and it has nothing to do with permission. Copying from a friend's academic paper or from a colleague's news report without attribution -- even with that person's permission -- is plagiarism, as is turning in a term paper purchased from somebody else.
Sometimes students are accused of plagiarism when they more rightly should be charged with sloppy attribution. Perhaps the intent was not to steal somebody else's work as pass it off as their own, but the writer was merely inept at quoting, paraphrasing and summarizing. Unfortunately for the student, intent is seldom the issue. Plagiarism is in the product, and an I-didn't-mean-to-cheat argument is not likely to hold up against the weight of evidence that, regardless of motive, the information was plagiarized.
Let's define a few related terms: A direct quote provides the original wording of a phrase, sentence or longer passage. Obviously, this verbatim information needs to be used with quotation marks and attribution to the original source. A paraphrase includes all or most of the original source's information, with nothing added; but it is presented in your words, often in an effort to simplify complicated information. This paraphrase also must be attributed to the source. A summary provides a short overview or synopsis of information from another source, presented in your words as the author of the report or paper. Because such a summary highlights somebody else's ideas, it must note that source.
Note that public relations writers have more flexibility about direct quotes and paraphrases than do reporters. Part of a public relations writer's job may be to develop a quote that would be attributed to a boss, colleague or client. This is not plagiarism, because it is an original quote. It is like the situation of a speech writer or advisor. The only offense related to plagiarism would be if the quotation were not original (either to the writer or to the person within the organization to whom it would be attributed) but rather was lifted without attribution from some other source.
Steps in Avoiding Plagiarism
Ethicists will debate the reasons why some writers plagiarize the work of others, and editors and teachers will grapple with what to do about it. Our intention here is to presume that you do not want to plagiarize, so we present some guidelines for avoiding it.
Note-Taking. Avoiding plagiarism begins with careful note-taking. Approach your research first with a clear idea of what information you want to obtain. Follow that with a practical list of potential sources, whether these are people or documents likely to have the information you are seeking.
During your research, whether you are interviewing somebody or working with already published information, make sure that your notes accurately indicate where you are quoting verbatim. Reporters and other researchers often underline direct quotes to distinguish them from paraphrased information. Or they may use a color-coded system, such as writing direct quotes in red ink or pencil.
Always include in your notes the full information about the source. For an academic report, that means full bibliographic information about the original written document. In journalistic research, this means noting not only the person being interviewed but also the time and place of the interview, so the news writer will have a clear paper trail if one should be needed to answer accusations of misquoting or libel.
Avoid quoting more than you need. Usually, paraphrased information is more useful to writers and shows more of the writer's insight. Verbatim quotes should be reserved for particularly important information or for strong and memorable phrases.
Writing Time. Give yourself enough time to review the appropriate sources, digest the information, and put it down on paper. A well-written article or paper is one in which the author clearly understands the relationship among the various bits of information and has taken the time to organize them in a way that is clear, logical and insightful. That takes time. Even when you are writing on deadline, you must take the time to avoid plagiarism.
Attributing Sources. Make sure that your readers know when you present information from a source other than yourself. Two ways to do this are to paraphrase and to quote. A paraphrase is the use of somebody else's words that you have rewritten. A quote is a verbatim, word-for-word use of somebody else's language (sometimes "cleaned up" for proper grammar).
Use quotation marks with any word-for-word sentences or phrases. An informal guide used by some newspapers and magazines is that no more than five consecutive words may be used without attribution.
In a journalistic report, attribution usually come after the first sentence of a direct quote or at the end of a paraphrase. Make sure that the extent of the paraphrased information is clear to the reader. In an academic report, attribution generally follows the quoted, paraphrased or summarized information. Any information after the attribution note is presumed to be the original writing of you as the author.
Documenting Primary Information. Always let your readers know the source of the information you are presenting. It is common for both journalistic and academic writers to present information from a variety of sources. Actually, both disciplines presume that writers will draw on information from other sources.
For journalistic uses, this means providing a reference to the source. Here are several ways to do this:
For academic uses, documentation involves the use of a style guide, such as the American Psychiatric Association APA style most often used for writing about topics involved in communication, business and the other social sciences. Other common documentation styles are those of the Chicago University Press or Chicago Style, and Modern Language Association MLA style. All three are similar (see style comparisons).
APA Style calls for a paraphrase to be followed by the name of the author and the publication date, in parenthesis. Here are three examples, the first two featuring a paraphrase with a single author, the third presenting a verbatim quotation with several co-authors.
In the interest of fairness, honesty and accountability, effective organizations practice transparent communication (Smith, 2002).
An academic paper they would include the full bibliographic information in the final section of the paper, usually labeled Works Cited. The information for the attributions above would be presented this way:
Documenting Secondary Information. If you are quoting or paraphrasing somebody who provides information from another source, make this clear to your readers. Journalistically, you might report it this way:
A good reporter will contact the senator's office or otherwise check out Brown's voting record on urban-related bills.
In an academic paper, be careful not to merely pass along an imbedded citation. Don't use the following construction.
That is simply Wilson's paraphrase of Jones. Instead, go to the Jones source yourself and either quote Jones directly or paraphrase both Jones and Wilson.
If you cannot obtain the original text, note that you are passing along the secondary citation, such as in this paraphrase:
In this case, you would list Wilson in the Works Cited but not Jones, who you did not actually read. But obviously, you writing will have more credibility if you actually investigate each of the information leads you find.
Knowing What to Attribute
It is not necessary to document when you are writing from your own experience or presenting the results of your own research. Nor do you need to document your own observations, insight and conclusions.
It also is not necessary to attribute basic facts and easily verifiable information. For example, no attribution is needed if you write that the campus library was built in 1963, or that it holds approximately 750,000 books, unless these somehow are contested claims. A test for this is to ask yourself if readers are likely to already know this information or if they could readily find it in generally available reference sources. If the answer is yes, it's safe to conclude that the information is a basic fact that does not need attribution.
One of the gray areas of plagiarism deals with common knowledge within a specific discipline. It is not necessary to document information that provides shared information in a field of study in which you have credentials, because this is common knowledge. However, as a matter of discretion and common sense, it may be appropriate to document such information if you are writing from outside that discipline, and often both reporters and students would be considered to be writing from the outside. A good test for determining what is common knowledge is to observe if you find the same information in several different sources. If so, it's common knowledge that does not require attribution.
To avoid plagiarism, it's always necessary to attribute judgmental or speculative information. With the library example above, you must provide the name of the person who expresses the opinion (whether or not it is an informed opinion) that the library's holdings are outdated, or who predicts that the library will become even more heavily used with the introduction of new computers with instant-access Internet accessibility. Such source identification is necessary whether you use a direct quote, a paraphrase or a summary for the information.
It also is necessary to attribute particularly unique wording. For example, when the FBI was asked about an Oliver Stone film that promoted the theory that a TWA airliner was shot down by a missile, after the FBI had conducted a lengthy investigation and specifically ruled out that possibility, FBI spokesman James Kallstrom said: "The real facts are glossed over the by likes of Mr. Stone and others who spend their life bottom-feeding in those small, dark crevices of doubt and hypocrisy." That's a great quote with some powerful language. It could add a lot to a news article or a report, but there's no way to present it without attribution to the FBI spokesman.
Penalties for Plagiarism
The 2003 New York Times scandal was just one visible example. Many newspaper and magazine reporters have been demoted or lost their jobs because of sustained charges that they plagiarized. Some have had their bylines banned. Reporters and reviewers with television and radio organizations have been sanctioned, from being reassigned to entry-level duties to being fired. Book authors, too, have been embroiled in plagiarism controversies. Most news-gathering organizations have specific policies against plagiarism.
In academia, students have lost scholarships or have been expelled for plagiarism; even some faculty members have lost their jobs. Most colleges and universities have written guidelines outlining the range of penalties for plagiarism. These penalties generally can be invoked at the sole discretion of the instructor, and they often range from failing the specific writing project to automatic failure for the entire course. Some schools reserve the right to dismiss an offending student from college. At one school alone, 48 students in a single class were expelled for plagiarism.
Additionally, many schools are investing in computer software to help spot plagiarized papers. Some colleges and universities also are considering bringing legal pressure against companies and Web sites that sell term papers to students, or alternatively to pressure those companies to sue student clients who submit their papers for class under the student's name.
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