Plagiarism Explained

Plagiarism is a form of academic and professional misconduct in which one person presents the work of another person as though it is his own. The offender need not explicitly claim authorship of the plagiarised work to commit the offence – simply presenting it in a misleading way is sufficient.

“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.”
~  Herman Melville

Educational institutions and professional bodies typically view plagiarism as a serious offence, and impose corresponding penalties, and universities and colleges normally have policies on plagiarism.  If you are a student you ought to familiarise yourself with your institution’s plagiarism policy.

Plagiarism

“the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work”

~ Dictionary.com

UK English:  plagiarise, plagiarised
American English:  plagiarize, plagiarized

Notice that there are two significant aspects to this definition:

  1. close imitation of the language or thoughts of another author
  2. representation of them as one’s own original work

Williams (2005) distinguishes three distinct kinds of plagiarist.

  • The lazy plagiarist is typified by the view that “Creativity is great, but plagiarism is faster” (Williams 2005).
  • The cunning plagiarist understands what plagiarism is and knows that it is unacceptable – and so uses a variety of tactics to avoid being found out.
  • The accidental plagiarist may not fully understand what plagiarism is, or he may simply have strayed accidentally across the line between acceptable and unacceptable paraphrase.

You can make up your own mind on the relative seriousness of each of these, but they are all plagiarism and should be avoided.

Don’t Steal My Words!

The simplest cases of plagiarism involve the copying of words – either written or spoken.  Here are some activities that are considered to be examples of such plagiarism.

  • word-for-word copying of text (or speech) without quotation marks – with or without acknowledging the author
  • very close paraphrasing of text (or speech) – with or without acknowledging the author
  • translation of text (or speech) between languages without acknowledging the author

Notice that unquoted copying and close paraphrasing are considered plagiarism whether or not the author is given credit.

Imagine, by way of illustration, that you were writing an essay on the subject of plagiarism, and that you want to make use of the ideas expressed in the first paragraph of this knol.  The following examples illustrate a number of alternative ways that you might go about this – some of which are acceptable – some of which are not acceptable.

Example 1

Plagiarism is a form of academic or professional misconduct in which one person presents the work of another person as though it is his own.  The offender need not explicitly claim authorship of plagiarised work to commit the offence – simply presenting it in a misleading way is sufficient.

Example 1 (above) is a word-for-word copy and is clearly plagiarism.

Example 2

Plagiarism is described (Creaney 2009) as a form of academic or professional misconduct in which one person presents the work of another person as though it is his own.  The offender need not explicitly claim authorship of plagiarised work to commit the offence – simply presenting it in a misleading way is sufficient.

References

  • Creaney, N., 2009, Plagiarism Explained, …

Example 2 is also plagiarism.  Although the original author is given credit, the plagiarist has not used quotation marks to indicate the he is using Creaney’s actual words.

Example 3

Plagiarism is a kind of academic or professional offence in which someone presents the work of someone else as though it is his own.  The plagiarist  does not need to explicitly claim authorship of work to commit the offence – simply misleading the reader is sufficient.

Example 3 is also plagiarism.  Firstly, the text is a very close paraphrase of the original – only a few words have been changed.  Secondly, the author is given no credit.  Indeed, either of these faults on its own would be sufficient to make this a case of plagiarism.

Example 4 (below) is acceptable – it is not plagiarism.  While the text is copied word-for-word, the original author is given due credit and quotation marks are used to indicate the extent of the quotation.  Note that both of these need to be done to avoid plagiarism: the author is given credit and quotation marks are used.

Example 4

Creaney (2009) says that “[p]lagiarism is a form of academic or professional misconduct in which one person presents the work of another person as though it is his own.  The offender need not explicitly claim authorship of plagiarised work to commit the offence – simply presenting it in a misleading way is sufficient.”

Reference List

  • Creaney, N., 2009, Plagiarism Explained, …

Example 5 is acceptable – it is not plagiarism either.  The author is given due credit and, in contrast to example 2, the paraphrase is sufficiently different from the original text.  Clearly there is room for judgements about what is meant by “sufficiently different”.

Example 5

Creaney (2009) describes plagiarism as an academic or professional offence, which takes place when one person passes off another person’s work as their own, and points out that the offence may – but does not necessarily – involve  an explicit fraudulently claim authorship.
Reference List

  • Creaney, N., 2009, Plagiarism Explained, …

These examples illustrate three important characteristics of the acceptable use of sources, which are normally sufficient to avoid the charge of plagiarism.

  1. Cite your source – In all cases, the original author must be given due credit.
  2. Use quotation marks – If text is quoted then the extent of the quotation must be explicitly indicated by quotation marks.
  3. Avoid close paraphrase – If text is paraphrased then the paraphrase must be sufficiently different from the original.

There are a variety of different conventions for citing sources.  The Harvard Referencing System is one that is widely used and understood.

There is more detail on the Harvard Referencing System in a separate knol:

  • How to Use the Harvard Style of Referencing

Don’t Steal my Ideas!

It is not just words that can be the object of plagiarism – information such as ideas, arguments, facts or statistics can also be plagiarised.

Facts

You might wonder how it is that facts or statistics can be plagiarised – and you would be right to be suspicious.  A fact is simply a statement that is true – no-one owns it – so it is odd that someone needs to be given credit.

However, in the case of a fact or statistic that is not commonly known, then it is reasonable that the person who discovered or drew attention to it is acknowledged. In such a case you must cite the source to avoid committing plagiarism.  You do not need to cite any sources for facts that are commonly known.

This example might help to illustrate the distinction.

Smoking can damage your health – it is the single biggest cause of lung cancer.   …   …   …   Indeed 90% of patients with lung cancer are either smokers or ex-smokers (Quit Smoking, Stop! 2009).

Reference List

Three facts are asserted in the text – only the final one needs its source to be cited.

  • The first fact – “Smoking can damage your health” – is commonly known and so needs no citation.
  • The second fact – “it is the single biggest cause of lung cancer” – is also commonly known and so needs no citation.
  • The third fact – “90% of patients with lung cancer or either smokers or ex-smokers” – may not be commonly known and so its source should be cited.

Deciding upon which facts are “commonly known” and which are not, may sometimes involve some judgement.  For instance, you might take the view that it was not commonly known that smoking is the biggest single cause of lung cancer.  In which case, you would also insert a corresponding citation at the appropriate point in the text.

Disputed Claims

Facts are sometimes in dispute.  For example, the following assertion may be a fact – but not everyone would accept it as such:

Increasing the tax on tobacco will reduce the incidence of lung cancer.

If you want to refer to a claim such as this, which is in dispute, you should include a citation to indicate its source.  Not only does this give due credit to the originator, but it also avoids giving your reader impression that you agree with the claim.

Interpreting facts

In addition to bare facts, it is also necessary to give credit for arguments, judgements, viewpoints or other ideas that interpret or comment upon facts.   In the following example it is not necessary to cite any source for the fact the Gary McKinnon is the subject of an extradition order for a hacking offence – this much is factual and commonly known.  However, the suggestion that he committed “the biggest military computer hack of all time” goes beyond the objective facts – it is an interpretation and so requires a citation.

Gary McKinnon is the subject of an extradition order for committing the biggest military hack of all time (P. McNulty reported in Creaney 2009). …

References

Creaney, N., 2009, Gary McKinnon: Dangerous Terrorist or Harmless Fool? [Online], Available at: http://knol.google.com/k/-/-/1hzaxtdr9c09g/53, [Accessed August 2009].

 

Other Media

Ideas are not only expressed through language.  They can also be embodied in other media, such as: images, graphics, music – or a combination of these.  Credit should be given to the originator in all cases.

The Author’s Consent

Obtaining an author’s consent and giving due acknowledgement is often sufficient to avoid any suspicion of plagiarism – but these are not always sufficient.

Plagiarism without the Author’s Consent

In the past this has normally meant copying text from a book, newspaper, report or some other paper document.  The plagiarist had to identify and locate the source text, and then manually copy or paraphrase specific portions.

The world wide web has made this kind of plagiarism trivially easy to accomplish.  The sheer volume of electronic material and the ease with which it can be copied have changed the scale of the problem beyond recognition.

Plagiarism with the Author’s consent.

This typically takes the form of one student copying work from another and submitting it as his own.  In this case both parties are complicit in the dishonesty and it is likely that both parties have committed an offence against their university of college.

Computer technology has also made this form of plagiarism much easier more widespread.

Plagiarism and Copyright

Plagiarism and copyright infringement are often confused.  Although the two concepts are related there are important differences.

  • Copyright is a legal term and copyright infringement is an offence in most countries (Creaney 2009a, 2009b).
  • Plagiarism is an ethical issue to do with honesty and integrity.  It may also be an offence against the regulations of organisations such as universities and professional bodies – but it is not illegal.

“Give proper credit for intellectual property.  Computing professionals are obligated to protect the integrity of intellectual property.  Specifically, one must not take credit for other’s ideas or work, even in cases where the work has not been explicitly protected by copyright, patent, etc.”Association for Computing Machinery, Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct – 1.6

Of course, an example of copyright violation may also be an example of plagiarism – and vice-versa – but one does not necessarily follow from the other.

There is more detail about copyright in these knols:

Copyright issues are often also discussed in this blog:

Plagiarism in the News

You may be surprised how frequently cases of plagiarism are reported in the news.  See, for example, The Plagiarism Plague (BBC).

The Case of the Dodgy Dossier In September 2002 Ibrahim al-Marashi published a paper (al-Marashi 2002) in the journal, Middle East Journal of International Affairs (MERAI), entitled – “Iraq’s Security and Intelligence Network: A Guide and Analysis”.

In February 2003 the British Government, under Prime Minister Tony Blair, produced a report entitled,  “Iraq: Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception and Intimidation”.  This report was “praised by Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, in his presentation to the United Nations Security Council” (Helm 2003), and formed part of the case that was made to the British parliament to gain approval for the invasion of Iraq.

It was later discovered that large parts of the British Government’s report were plagiarised from al-Marashi’s paper – six pargraphs were copied verbatim without crediting al-Marashi.

You can see the texts side-by-side here: A Piece of Plagiarism (BBC).

Here are some search results for the word “plagiarism”:

Unfortunately the Knol platform presents many opportunities for both plagiarism and copyright violation.

Summary

  • Plagiarism is a form of academic and professional dishonesty that involves presenting someone else’s work as your own.
  • Plagiarism is not the same as copyright violation.  Plagisrism is an ethical issue, while copyright is a legal one.  An example of plagiarism may also violate an author’s copyright, but this is not necessarily the case.Universities, colleges and professional bodies typically have regulations that make plagiarism an offence.
  • Plagiarism may involve copying words, ideas, pictures, music and a variety of other media.
  • Plagiarism may often be avoided by ensuring that:
    • the original author has given permission for you to use his work, and
    • due credit – or acknowledgement – is given to the original author.

Bibliography

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