Robin’s blog: Plagiarism–Fruit of temptation

“Lead us not unto temptation” is a phrase from a prayer many of us know, and I’m probably not the only one who calls it to mind almost daily. Temptation is everywhere, from too many Christmas cookies to snapping at a difficult family member.


If you’re a writer, from a student to a world-renowned journalist, you’ve also probably faced temptation in the form of that confusing little devil called plagiarism..


I got to thinking about plagiarism in this modern age when I faced it head-on writing these blogs, especially those about the rules of grammar.


Because I’m a careful person and not always right when on that (or any other) topic, it’s my habit to do some online research as I write. I want to make sure I’m not spreading error, and sometimes I am trying to rethink it through for myself – now when is it that you start a quote with a capital? And other such fascinating topics.


How temptation begins

The temptation comes the minute I start reading what’s on the internet. It turns out perhaps thousands of well-educated people have written on those arcane topics, and I’m often startled at how well they explain things, with explanations of grammar’s nuances that are crystal clear and even beautifully written (well, perhaps only “beautiful” if you have a “thing” for grammar).


I’m safe as long as I cut, paste, and change wording…

stop sign

it’s still plagiarism if the idea belongs to someone else and you don’t attribute


So of course I do what any sane person trying to educate herself would do: I cut and paste the best phrases and paragraphs into my notes, sometimes even right into what I’m writing.


Then, of course, I go through and change the words to make it mine. But already I’m wondering, is this plagiarism? (It never was much of an issue when I was a student, when “cut and paste” meant literally that, and left a nasty hole in a book or magazine from which the cut was made).


So I rework the ideas into my own, but if it’s original or unique in any way – or maybe as I rewrite I realize the actual words the other person used were perfect – well, then I have to face up to it and attribute. That of course means, if you’re a student, hauling out the relevant style manual and doing it right.


Sometimes it’s actually more worthwhile just to start with words and ideas that are your own, and this is, indeed, one argument against laxity regarding plagiarism:


…if you put into your own words what you’ve read and studied, you pretty much have to understand it first.



The nuances of plagiarism

The whole question of course is more of a challenge to today’s student sitting at the computer. The temptations and the prevalence of various kinds of plagiarism are much increased. Much discussed too are the nuances of plagiarism, what is and what isn’t.


“Word-for-word” plagiarism is the one people usually think of, and the easiest to discern. When you get to ownership of ideas and matters like that, you’re on trickier ground, but I learned in my research that plagiarism is still considered, as it has been for probably millennia, a major intellectual “sin.”


And I realized the definition is really pretty clear. If you plagiarize, you are pretending that you thought and wrote something which actually someone else thought and wrote. It’s deception, to be blunt… or, in other words, lying.


What we do at In Writing

This is perhaps a good place to mention In Writing and the perspectives of its founder, Katie Anton. Katie tells me it’s crucial to her to make it clear that we are in no way a “paper-writing service,” to reassure both students and their teachers.

Even in our tutoring and editing, we’re careful to avoid suggesting to a student phrases or sentences to use. Rather than offer “did you mean to word it this way?” followed by a retelling in our words, we point out the places where you, the writer, need to give the point you’re making more thought.


Learning to put thoughts into words:  a formidable task

The birthplace of clear writing is in clear thinking, and being able to think clearly about something goes hand in hand with learning and understanding it. And learning to put your thoughts into words is one of the most important aspects of any kind of education.

When you’re out in the professional world, it’s sometimes the case you can delegate that responsibility. But a student can’t, and I’d argue shouldn’t. You will learn the material better, and as a bonus you’ll learn the ins and outs of your own communication style, your abilities and pitfalls (we all have them!).


Who really owns ideas?

Issues like “ownership” of ideas and the ability to trace a line of argument through sources are also major reasons to stop and think the next time you cut and paste a good set of words.


Some suggest in a modern world, maybe no ideas are really the property of one person or company. But others note that given the world as it is, with patents and copyrights galore, the question of whether ideas should be owned or not isn’t very relevant. What is relevant is the possibility of watching one’s career crash and burn after plagiarism is discovered.


For students, of course, the immediate concerns would be academic probation, suspension and even expulsion, none of which exactly advance one’s career!


When in doubt, cite

I admit I find citing sources tedious. I’d love to just take the ideas and run with them! But I’ve realized the wiser course is to slow down and be careful.


First, I’ll write the idea or information in my own words. At that point, I can see pretty clearly whether I’m restating a common fact or stealing an original idea. If there’s any doubt, I’ll stop and cite. If I realize the original writer put it better than I ever could, I’ll go back and use the direct quotation too.


At In Writing, we make this easier by helping out with accurate citation style. The main thing you need to supply is the intent to stay honest. In our experience, the vast majority of students have that intention. Plagiarism is a complicated topic to be sure, but it rests on some principles of honesty we’ve all heard about since kindergarten, if not before.

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