Frank Johnson on Avoiding Plagiarism


Avoiding Plagiarism

Every day we read and hear factual information, we hear stories, we view video, and we engage in numerous conversations. We assimilate much of this information and then repeat it, putting our own spin on it. When we proclaim some absolute fact or statistic or strong belief, we often hear the question, "Where did you hear that?" or the imperative statement, "Prove it". These are often legitimate responses and they press us to reveal the source or sources of our knowledge. Writing a paper and including outside sources is no different, except that you will be required to document your sources and you will be graded on the accuracy and quality of the work.

In college, plagiarism is one of the most serious accusations a professor can make against a student. It can lead to failing grades for a paper, for a class, and in cases of repeat offenders, can even lead to expulsion from school. With seemingly unlimited  information available through multiple print and electronic mediums, it is easy to become confused, disorganized, and overwhelmed. Also, the temptation to copy and paste has never been greater. Be warned though, that as easy as it is for a student to plagiarize information, it is easier for professors to investigate a suspicious passage in hand since the professors are familiar with your writing style, have knowledge of advanced search techniques, and can use the plagiarism program, to identify undocumented passages from outside sources.

To avoid plagiarism you need to know what it is. Plagiarism is the undocumented use of another person's ideas, written or spoken words, images, statistics, theories, and even paraphrases of another person's speech or writing. Keep in mind that whether it is unintentional or deliberate, any undocumented use of another person's work is considered plagiarism.

I like to think that most plagiarism is accidental and that it happens mostly because students are misinformed about how to incorporate and cite outside information. A few reasons someone might accidentally plagiarize are:

  1. A student may not know how to properly search library catalogues, databases, and other reference resources available through the library.
  2. Students don't know when to cite specific information. Just because we understand an idea doesn't mean it's ours. We must give credit.
  3. A student may not have the ability to paraphrase properly and to cite a paraphrase properly.  Many students don't know how to paraphrase and plagiarize when they just substitute a word here and there instead of rewriting the entire passage in their own words. Additionally, many students plagiarize because they assume that a paraphrase does not have to be cited. It has to be cited. 
  4. Poor note taking during the research process also leads to plagiarism. It is important to note ALL paraphrases and direct quotes as you write them or find them. Once you are working on late or final drafts, you may forget what is your writing or your ideas and what you have borrowed.  
  5. Plagiarism often occurs because students procrastinate and start their research project late. Not only does this possibly tempt one to copy and paste, but rushing anything makes us more susceptible to mistakes. 
  6. One last reason for plagiarism is many students' inability to properly cite sources. The library offers an online resources called NoodleTools which allows a student to enter citation information into the program's online fields and it then formats the citation. Keep in mind that any type of program that does this is only as accurate and thorough as the information entered into it. 

How can you avoid plagiarism? Easy. You need to be informed, and when you are unsure of something, ask questions or seek help. Here are a few tips:

  1. When in doubt about anything to do with the research process, ask your professor first. This is the person who will be reading, evaluating, and grading your work. The biggest mistake I see students make is not checking in with professors when they have questions. Many professors have specific requirements particular to their writing assignments, especially when research is involved.
  2. Use the services that are available to you, both on campus and online.
    • Reference librarians can help with all phases of the research process, especially when you are gathering information. The more focused your topic is, the easier it will be for them to help you find the appropriate material. Keep in mind that you are not "bothering" them when you seek help. They went to school to learn how to use and teach these methods and resources and their primary mission is to help students.
    • Use the Academic Support Services. The Center for Academic Program Support or CAPS offers tutoring for writing in all classes, tutoring in specific subject areas, and tutoring in math and math-related classes. Tutors in the Writing Center, DON 238 (just around the corner from the library) are all experienced with research writing and citation methods. In addition to one-on-one tutoring, the Writing Center has a number of resources including citation manuals, links to online research resources, and research writing materials.
    • All HCC students have access to online tutoring through The service is free. The online writing tutoring is asynchronous, which means the paper is submitted, the tutor reads it, and then responds later. Students log in and submit their writing online.

To wrap up, be sure to give credit where credit is due. When you are given a research assignment, remember to start early, to keep track of your sources, to ask lots of questions, and to seek help when you feel the need. Good luck with your research and good luck with your writing.