Using someone else’s ideas or phrasing and representing those ideas or phrasing as our own, either on purpose or through carelessness, is a serious offense known as plagiarism. “Ideas or phrasing” includes written or spoken material, of course — from whole papers and paragraphs to sentences, and, indeed, phrases — but it also includes statistics, lab results, art work, etc. “Someone else” can mean a professional source, such as a published writer or critic in a book, magazine, encyclopedia, or journal; an electronic resource such as material we discover on the World Wide Web; another student at our school or anywhere else; a paper-writing “service” (online or otherwise) which offers to sell written papers for a fee.
Let us suppose, for example, that we’re doing a paper for Music Appreciation on the child prodigy years of the composer and pianist Franz Liszt and that we’ve read about the development of the young artist in several sources. In Alan Walker’s book Franz Liszt: The Virtuoso Years (Ithaca: 1983), we read that Liszt’s father encouraged him, at age six, to play the piano from memory, to sight-read music and, above all, to improvise. We can report in our paper (and in our own words) that Liszt was probably the most gifted of the child prodigies making their mark in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century — because that is the kind of information we could have gotten from a number of sources; it has become what we call common knowledge.
However, if we report on the boy’s father’s role in the prodigy’s development, we should give proper credit to Alan Walker. We could write, for instance, the following: Franz Liszt’s father encouraged him, as early as age six, to practice skills which later served him as an internationally recognized prodigy (Walker 59). Or, we could write something like this: Alan Walker notes that, under the tutelage of his father, Franz Liszt began work in earnest on his piano playing at the age of six (59). Not to give Walker credit for this important information is plagiarism.
Some More Examples
Here is our original text from Elaine Tyler May’s “Myths and Realities of the American Family”:
Because women’s wages often continue to reflect the fiction that men earn the family wage, single mothers rarely earn enough to support themselves and their children adequately. And because work is still organized around the assumption that mothers stay home with children, even though few mothers can afford to do so, child-care facilities in the United States remain woefully inadequate.
Here are some possible uses of this text. As you read through each version, try to decide if it is a legitimate use of May’s text or a plagiarism.
Since women’s wages often continue to reflect the mistaken notion that men are the main wage earners in the family, single mothers rarely make enough to support themselves and their children very well. Also, because work is still based on the assumption that mothers stay home with children, facilities for child care remain woefully inadequate in the United States.
Plagiarism In Version A there is too much direct borrowing in sentence structure and wording. The writer changes some words, drops one phrase, and adds some new language, but the overall text closely resembles May’s. Even with a citation, the writer is still plagiarizing because the lack of quotation marks indicates that Version A is a paraphrase, and should thus be in the writer’s own language.
As Elaine Tyler May points out, “women’s wages often continue to reflect the fiction that men earn the family wage” (588). Thus many single mothers cannot support themselves and their children adequately. Furthermore, since work is based on the assumption that mothers stay home with children, facilities for day care in this country are still “woefully inadequate.” (May 589).
Plagiarism The writer now cites May, so we’re closer to telling the truth about our text’s relationship to the source, but this text continues to borrow too much language.
By and large, our economy still operates on the mistaken notion that men are the main breadwinners in the family. Thus, women continue to earn lower wages than men. This means, in effect, that many single mothers cannot earn a decent living. Furthermore, adequate day care is not available in the United States because of the mistaken assumption that mothers remain at home with their children.
Plagiarism Version C shows good paraphrasing of wording and sentence structure, but May’s original ideas are not acknowledged. Some of May’s points are common knowledge (women earn less than men, many single mothers live in poverty), but May uses this common knowledge to make a specific and original point and her original conception of this idea is not acknowledged.
Women today still earn less than men — so much less that many single mothers and their children live near or below the poverty line. Elaine Tyler May argues that this situation stems in part from “the fiction that men earn the family wage” (588). May further suggests that the American workplace still operates on the assumption that mothers with children stay home to care for them.
This assumption, in my opinion, does not have the force it once did. More and more businesses offer in-house day-care facilities. . . .
No Plagiarism The writer makes use of the common knowledge in May’s work, but acknowledges May’s original conclusion and does not try to pass it off as his or her own. The quotation is properly cited, as is a later paraphrase of another of May’s ideas.
Penalty for Plagiarism
The penalty for plagiarism is usually determined by the instructor teaching the course involved. In many schools and colleges, it could involve failure for the paper and it could mean failure for the entire course and even expulsion from school. Ignorance of the rules about plagiarism is no excuse, and carelessness is just as bad as purposeful violation. At the very least, however, students who plagiarize have cheated themselves out of the experience of being responsible members of the academic community and have cheated their classmates by pretending to contribute something original which is, in fact, a cheap copy. Within schools and colleges that have a diverse student body, instructors should be aware that some international students from other cultures may have ideas about using outside resources that differ from the institution’s policies regarding plagiarism; opportunities should be provided for all students to become familiar with institutional policies regarding plagiarism.
Students who do not thoroughly understand the concept of plagiarism and methods of proper documentation should request assistance from their teacher and from librarians.