Principles of Good Writing: Avoiding Plagiarism
by Harris Cooper, PhD
Harris Cooper, PhD, is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University. He is the author of Reporting Research in Psychology and editor of the APA Handbook of Research Methods in Psychology. He was the chair of the APA Journal Article Reporting Standards Working Group and served on the Publication Manual Revision Task Force for the sixth edition. In 2009, Dr. Cooper became the chief editorial advisor for APA's journal publishing program. In this role he served as a resource for the editors of APA journals as well as the mediator of disputes between editors and authors and between authors and authors.
Plagiarism involves the copying of text into a new work without crediting it to the original source. The main reasons why people plagiarize are simple. First, they want credit for someone else’s ideas. This motivation can come from a desire to impress others and to foster career advancement. Second, it can occur because people are just plain lazy. They have found a passage written by another that fits their paper well and is expressed clearly. They think it would be too much effort to rephrase and credit the source.
Instances of plagiarism can range from stealing an entire work, by simply changing the name of the author, to paraphrasing someone’s work and not attributing the ideas to the original written document (Turnitin, 2012). Also, motivation can be used to distinguish among acts of plagiarism (Barnett & Campbell, 2012). Plagiarism can be intentional or conscious. It can also be unintentional or inadvertent; for example, when you read something and then later forget that it had a source other than yourself. Regardless of the motivation, plagiarism is plagiarism, and the possibility of unintentional plagiarism means the steps you take to avoid it ought not be based on your memory alone.
Students often ask “how many words in a row constitute plagiarism?” There is no black-and-white answer to this question. Different people will answer differently. Also, context might matter. For example, it is not unusual to find descriptions of research apparatus and psychological measures that share short strings of words without attribution to the original source, and without engendering charges of plagiarism.
The first key to avoiding plagiarism is to avoid stealing ideas. This is called “intellectual theft” and it can occur without the material in question having ever been committed to print. When you mention another person’s idea in your paper, say who said it first. If the idea has been around for a while, you can cite the original source, the most representative source, or the most recent source. In most cases, which source is most appropriate will be evident from the context in which it is being cited.
But plagiarism is more than intellectual theft, though passing off others' ideas as your own is just as serious. Plagiarism involves copying words. Your first line of defense against an accusation of plagiarism is using quotation marks. A citation and a quote will protect you from charges of plagiarism. Long quotes, the type that require offset from the regular text by indenting them, are also legitimate but they should be used sparingly and may require the permission of the publisher of the original work. Different publishers have different standards for when their permission is needed. You will have to visit their websites to find this out. Remember however, if your paper contains too many quotes it will look like a mash-up, lazy, and not very original.
Be sure as well to check your citations for mistakes. First, read the referenced material carefully to make certain the ideas you are attributing to it are in there and you have portrayed them accurately. Second, carefully check the spellings and date in the reference. Copy editing can be tedious work, but it is important so that credit is given where it is due. Typically, an incorrect citation will not be viewed as plagiarism as long as the error is minor and it is clearly just a copy editing oversight, not intentional.
Your second line of defense is citing and rephrasing. If you have rephrased someone else’s work, be sure to cite the original source. Sometimes, rephrasing can be difficult because the original authors did such a good job of conveying their ideas. That is no excuse for copying without quotes. It is also where laziness creeps in. When you rephrase, think about your “voice” and how it might express the idea differently. Also, in many instances, you will want to shorten or summarize what the original authors said.
Finally, your last line of defense is using a plagiarism-detection services (e.g., iThenticate, at http://www.ithenticate.com; HelioBLAST, at http://helioblast.heliotext.com). Some charge fees, some don’t. These software programs will compare your paper with millions of other documents found online and in scholarly reference databases. They produce (a) a report that lists the documents that share the most material and (b) copies of those documents with the shared material highlighted. When you submit your paper to a detection service, you will be asked to decide how many shared words in a row should lead to getting flagged.
Although this may seem like overkill at first, it is a worthwhile step if your paper is long and complex and builds on the work of others as well as your own. Theses, dissertations, and any work being submitted to a professional journal fit this definition. If you are submitting to a scientific journal, the first thing that will happen to your paper is that the manuscript coordinator will submit it to a check. By doing it yourself, you will see what they will see. Also, remember that plagiarism sometimes can be unintentional. This is a great way to check yourself against the unconscious copying of words.
Computerization has made it easy to cut-and-paste the words of others. It has also made it easy to detect when plagiarism has occurred. You can avoid allegations of plagiarism through awareness and honest effort.
Here are two excellent sources of addition advice on avoiding plagiarism:
Roig, M. (2003). Avoiding plagiarism, self-plagiarism, and other questionable writing practices. Retrieved from http://ori.hhs.gov/avoiding-plagiarism-self-plagiarism-and-other-questionable-writing-practices-guide-ethical-writing
Stern, L. (2009). What every student should know about plagiarism. New York, NY: Pearson.
You can also read about plagiarism here:
Cooper, H. (2016). Ethical choices in research: Managing data, writing reports, and publishing results in the social sciences. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/books/4312023.aspx
Barnett, J. E., & Campbell, L. F. (2012). Ethical issues in scholarship. In S. J. Knapp (Ed.), APA handbook of ethical issues in psychology: Vol. 2. Practice, teaching and research. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/13272-015
Turnitin. (2012). The plagiarism spectrum: Tagging 10 types of unoriginal work [Infographic]. Retrieved from http://turnitin.com/assets/en_us/media/plagiarism_spectrum.php