You’ve seen the headlines: “Staff Writer Fired Over Plagiarism.” You’ve heard of writers’ reputations forever muddied because their initially well-received work contained other writers’ lines, unquoted and unacknowledged. You wonder: What were they thinking?
While occasional unscrupulous writers risk everything by claiming others’ work as their own, plagiarizing is the last thing on most of our minds. Sure, we enjoy seeing our names in print, but we write because we love words. Shaping them into sentences that will stir, inform, and/or entertain readers is our oxygen. There’s no pleasure in stealing others’ words.
Sign up for our newsletter to receive FREE articles, publishing tips, writing advice, and more delivered to your inbox once a week.
Yet it’s easier to fall into plagiarizing than most realize. If you do research – and whether you write fiction or nonfiction, you’re liable to – plagiarism can be only a mistake away. Here’s how it might happen:
Six ways research can turn into plagiarism
1. Relying on memory when writing about your research.
Many paraphrasing guides even advise this. And that’s fine – provided you then check what you’ve written against the source, both for accuracy and accidental “borrowed” language. When it comes to language, familiarity breeds feelings of ownership. Memorable phrases stick in our minds and can feel remarkably like our own inspiration.
2. Becoming “immune” to plagiarism from reading it on the web.
The internet is rife with plagiarism. When identical passages crop up on numerous sites without quotation marks or attribution, your beliefs about what constitutes plagiarism can subtly shift. As Plagiarism Today blogger Jonathan Bailey told the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher, “The people doing the copying and pasting think they’re just sharing the way they would on Facebook.” It feels so innocent – until it bites you in the reputation.
3. Cutting and pasting research into your document.
The internet is both friend and tempter. It leads quickly to information, but capturing and transferring the words is too easy. You figure on leaving it temporarily and revising later. But in the rush to finish, you may forget the passage isn’t yours.
4. Taking sloppy notes.
Whether you cut and paste or record research on note cards, if you fail to put quotation marks around source wording (no matter how brief) or you neglect to record your source, you may quite innocently plagiarize.
5. Failing to give credit for ideas.
Noting the source of your research for yourself isn’t enough. If you use someone else’s words – or their ideas – you must credit them in your piece. Academic writing aside, a simple tagline will usually do; in other words, add something like, as CEO Jane Doe notes. (Examine your target publication to see whether citations are required and the preferred style.) Common knowledge, meaning information that crops up repeatedly, is an exception. For example, every biography of President Obama includes his birthdate. Although you might not know it, it’s considered common knowledge. However, that doesn’t give you license to express that fact in a source’s exact language; you need to paraphrase.
6. Thinking replacing important words with synonyms is all there is to paraphrasing.
This may well be the greatest pitfall, because writers think they are doing the right thing. After all, didn’t your high school teachers tell you that using synonyms – and perhaps changing tenses or the form of a word – would make a passage your own? This beginners’ version of paraphrasing isn’t sufficient for professional writers. Synonyms are certainly part of the process, but to ethically paraphrase a source, you need to completely change not only the language but also the sentence structure and order of the passage. That means re-visioningthe work – a real challenge when it is already succinctly and artfully put.
Fortunately, there’s a reliable method to avoid plagiarism, one I teach my students at Stetson University. (Note: Steps 2 and 3 of this 3-step paraphrasing method are described in the University of Wisconsin’s online The Writer’s Handbook.)
How to avoid plagiarism
Step 1: Break up the passage you want to paraphrase into units of ideas.
To do this, put a slash mark after each distinct idea. You’re turning the passage into its building blocks, making clear each idea within it. The smaller the blocks, the better.
To see how this might work, imagine your source is the second paragraph of this article. Here’s how you might divide the ideas:
While occasional /unscrupulous writers/ who risk everything/ by claiming others’ work/ as their own,/ plagiarizing is the last thing/ on most of our minds./ We may enjoy seeing our names in print, but /we write /because we love words /and shaping them/ into sentences that will stir,/ inform, /and/or entertain /readers /is our oxygen. /There’s no pleasure/ in stealing/ others’ words.
Step 2: Choose a different starting point, changing the order in which ideas are presented.
Doing so will push you to restructure sentences. Connect ideas once in separate sentences and separate ideas that were together. In other words, make short sentences longer and long sentences short. You’ll find yourself shifting the language automatically.
Your opening idea will depend on your point and what precedes this passage. Imagine that we decide on the last idea, that writing “is our oxygen;” you can’t use that expression without quotes (and you should avoid something similar like we live and breathe it), so translate it and move on.
Writers write because we can’t imagine not writing, not because of our eagerness to see our names in print. We love words. We want to create sentences that excite, inform, and or entertain our audience. So why would we plagiarize? Some ethically challenged writers do it, tanking their reputations when they’re caught. But most of us would never dream of stealing another writer’s creative product.
Now the passage, while faithful to its original ideas, is structurally quite different, as are its words. But the bolded words represent plagiarism. Notice the original used a synonym, readers, instead of our audience. But our audience is embedded in a phrase matching the original grammatical set-up (not to mention the wording); hence, it has to go. Have faith: Step 2 may take several tries until you have an original, unplagiarized work.
Step 3: Plug in synonyms.
Once you’re satisfied that the structure is your own, replace the remaining source words with synonyms.
Writers write, not for glory, but because we can’t imagine not writing. We’re wordsmiths. Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, we want our creative expression to be memorable and to be ours. So why would we plagiarize? Some ethically challenged writers do it, tanking their reputations when they’re caught. But most of us would never dream of stealing another writer’s creative product.
Some original words, you’ll note, are still present in one form or another: writers, writing, words, plagiarism. But these words are intrinsic to the topic – they’re shared language, that is, language common to the subject area. You don’t need to perform the verbal acrobatics of replacing a natural choice, such as swapping out writer with an awkward phrase like an individual who creates written works. But you do need to make sure the words and sentences surrounding it are original. Distinctive source phrases, even one or two words, need to be quoted (with source acknowledged) or changed.
The process may seem cumbersome initially, but soon you’ll navigate it mentally. It takes some imagination to re-see a piece of writing, but then again, imagination is our strong suit.
Gail Radley, the author of 22 books for young people and various articles for adults, lives in DeLand, Florida, where she teaches English at Stetson University.
Looking for an agent?
Download our free guide to finding a literary agent, with the contact information and submission preferences for more than 80 agencies.