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  • Writer's pictureAkshi Chadha

Plagiarism: The Basics

Updated: Aug 12, 2021

“Plagiarism is a serious academic offence” is a sentence embedded somewhere in the end pages of our syllabi. But what does it really mean? Plagiarism can be hard to discern and thus in this post, I am going to attempt to break down the basics of plagiarism and careful citation.

Western uses Turnitin as its plagiarism-checking software. As a result, all our assignment submissions go through Turnitin—even when it doesn't seem like it because we often cannot see our own report. So, Turnitin detects plagiarism. But again, what constitutes plagiarism—the word that sounds like a horrifying disease?

Here's the clearest definition I could come up with: Plagiarism is using literature that already exists, without proper citation, and passing it off as your own for something you are currently being asked to write. Literature includes other people’s writing, research, and ideas and might even include your own work in some cases.

Let's understand a few general instances of how plagiarism can occur:

Case 1: Copy and Paste

Person A finds something relevant to their topic on the internet written by Person B. Person A copies and pastes it into their paper without citing it, inevitably suggesting they came up with the text, when, in fact, they did not.

Why this doesn’t work: If you have looked at a Turnitin report, you will find that it almost always catches chunks of text that have been copy-pasted as is. If the text is not within quotes (the correct way to cite direct material) and if Person B isn’t credited, the text is considered plagiarised.

How to avoid this: Anything that has been copied word to word and is necessary for our argument, should be placed within quotes and cited (which includes author’s name, page number, and/or year) using the appropriate style for our course, which would include both in-text citations and footnotes or endnotes. It's worth checking out Purdue OWL for information on various styles and how to use them correctly in a paper.

Case 2: Trouble in Paraphrase

Person A reads Person B's work and decides to paraphrase certain bits of it within their essay but forgets to credit Person B because Person A might think the paraphrasing is their own work.

Why this doesn't work: It’s really hard to paraphrase anything and retain its essence without using the keywords already present in the source. Again, if you have seen a Turnitin report, you can see that it aggressively scans for words that might be close together in your paper and also somewhere else on the internet (even innocent determiners like “a” and “the” are sometimes flagged). If someone were to paraphrase someone else’s work for their own purposes, the keywords will be close enough for Turnitin detection. If the paraphrase is not followed by a citation, it again means the person is suggesting that they came up with the text/idea, when, in fact, it belongs to someone else and they just changed it a little. Paraphrasing without citation thus constitutes plagiarism.

How to avoid this: While we don’t need quotes here, the citation remains the same as Case 1.

Case 3: The Amalgamation

Here Person A might end up using material from a ton of different sources and mix them up so the materials actually look different within the paper than how they might have within the original sources. Person A again does not cite any or some of the sources correctly.

Why this doesn't work: To reiterate like the bad cop in a bad action movie, Turnitin will catch it all. The missing citations are a red flag and the fact that the material is all from different sources, might potentially suggest an intent to plagiarise.

How to avoid this: Track and cite everything that has been borrowed—whether directly quoted or paraphrased.

Case 4: The Found Essay

Picture this: Person A scoured the internet to find good research for their topic. They put all the relevant bits into their essay and cite everything correctly. But the paper is all research—there's little to no original work.

Why this doesn't work: Though the citations credit the various authors, the essay itself is supposed to be authored by Person A. In the absence of original work, Person A cannot really take credit for having written the essay since it’s all borrowed/copied material, even if cited correctly. Thus, even with citations, Turnitin might flag this red because of the intensity of borrowed materials.

How to avoid this: As long as Person A comes up with their own thesis and limits the number of secondary sources they intend to use, this problem should hardly occur. Honestly, a thesis we come up with on our own will almost always be much more exciting to read than some potentially outdated thought a scholar had decades ago while smoking a pipe or something.

Case 5: The False Eureka Moments

Person A researches. Person A doesn’t find any research worth using directly in their paper. They thus go on to write their paper without help from these sources. However, perhaps unconsciously so, their ideas are similar to the ideas in the research articles that they read. Person A maybe believes the idea is theirs so they forego the citations, but the ideas are too similar to the sources on the internet.

Why this doesn't work: It is possible that our thinking is influenced by the research we are exposed to while writing our papers and so we unintentionally bring other people's ideas into our paper, thinking these ideas to be ours. Turnitin might catch key phrases that are oddly strung together in similar ways in the source article that we read, but didn’t think we were using. While this is potentially an honest mistake, the lack of citation here could suggest intent.

How to avoid this: Keep a track of the articles you read, even if you are not employing them in your paper. In some of my classes, we’ve been advised to use a “Works Consulted” section to put in articles we have read but haven't 'used', just in case we unconsciously picked up ideas from them. The format will probably vary from class to class, so when in doubt, always check in with your professors.

Special Case: Self-Plagiarism

I term self-plagiarism a special case because it’s not mentioned enough while talking about plagiarism. What happens, in this case, is that Person A writes something amazing for a class or a publication. Then comes a new assignment for a class or a publication. Person A thinks the requirements seem similar to the previous amazing article they wrote, so they could potentially recycle the ideas or re-submit the old article for this new assignment.

Why this doesn’t work: Any assignments we submit are retained on the Turnitin database since our papers go through the checker each time. Anything we might have published previously is potentially available on the web for Turnitin to detect. Hence, a resubmission has a high chance of being detected and flagged.

Why this is Plagiarism: We might think it’s okay to reuse our own ideas since they’re our intellectual property. However, plagiarism is passing off any existing literature as our own, for a new project, without citation. So we can potentially use our older ideas in a new assignment, but we will have to cite them. Furthermore, passing off old classwork for new assignments is considered self-plagiarism because we have forgone the effort that was required of us for the assignment which verges on dishonesty.

How to avoid this: We cannot utilize older assignments for new purposes unless we obtain special permission from the instructors. If using our own ideas that we have already utilized elsewhere, we should cite them (and still confirm with the instructor if this is okay).

So, these are some common ways where misinformation can lead to accidental plagiarism. Turnitin, Western’s plagiarism-checking software, has various resources that you might want to read up on for more information about plagiarism!

Okay, I get it! Why Are We Talking About This?

Plagiarism can potentially hurt a lot of sentiments and compromise people’s academic integrity. Of course, the accused affords to lose the most as they face serious consequences. But scholars who have their work plagiarised are also hurt in the process. Because they have dedicated their time and hard work to their research, they deserve to be appropriately credited for their ideas. So apart from the academic charges, plagiarism is also a matter of integrity and ethics.

The Big Takeaway

Cite everything! Any literature, lectures, discussions among friends, or something that was disclosed to you in a dream—everything and anything.

Academia is hard. Since we are always absorbing information from everywhere, it can be difficult to understand what plagiarism is. This article covers the basics—we should come up with our own thesis and use secondary sources sparingly (depending on the length and requirements of the paper) while making sure to cite them properly.

Also, overwhelming circumstances might skew our judgment at times. If you feel that happening, please do not hesitate to seek someone out—professors, peers, academic counsellors, or on-campus mental health resources. They are almost always in a better position to guide you at difficult times. To that end, we hope this article helps a bit in uncovering the mysteries of plagiarism and academic integrity!

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