Thievery, Plagiarism, and How You Have Been Stealing Words Your Whole Life

What college student cannot remember his or her first week on campus? The week is marked by novelty. You were juggling a new schedule, you were attempting to make friends, you were learning where all of Marshall’s buildings are located on campus, you were adjusting to eating food in the cafeteria (have you adjusted yet?). While encountering each of these new experiences, there were certain expectations and principles you undoubtedly realized that professors had for you. Perhaps one of the most glaring of those was (and is) this: do not plagiarize.

It’s the conscientious college freshman’s worst fear: being accused of plagiarism. One of the key principles students learn about college writing is that plagiarism is bad (and therefore, the individual that participates in the act of plagiarism is also bad). After you were assigned your first essay, not only did you have to show that you knew how to produce a thesis and support it logically, coherently, and grammatically, but you also had to show that you could do so in your own words.

But what are your own words? The question is not as simple as it may seem. I tutored  in the writing center for five years, and in those five years, I had countless students ask me the following question: “am I plagiarizing here?” The fact that this question has to be asked shows that there is a sort of uncertainty about what plagiarism actually is. If you have ever performed the “do I need to cite this?” debate in your head while writing a paper, you have asked yourself a form of the question, “what are my own words?”

My words, your words, their words – who can claim ownership of words? No one. And everyone. Here’s why the concept of plagiarism is confusing: in our subconscious, we all know that we are, in the most rigid of senses, constantly plagiarizing. Our language, our ideas are not unique to ourselves. Even informal, friendly interactions are, in a sense, “plagiarized.” For example, how many of you have used the following words in a similar arrangement today?

Speaker 1: Good morning!

Speaker 2: Hey, how are you?

Speaker 1: Fine. You?

Speaker 2: Fine.

A simple exchange. A familiar exchange. And yet, a unique exchange. Each time you communicate those phrases with another person, it is a unique interaction to you. Plagiarism in academic writing is confusing because in normal, everyday situations, the fear of “stealing someone else’s words” is a non-existent fear. We do it all the time.

So in addition to the plagiarism is bad mantra that is so engrained into you after your first week on campus, here’s another principle you should absorb in order to succeed in academic writing: academic writing is unlike any other spoken or written discourse. This is why you can “steal” words in conversations, in Facebook statuses, and it is actually not considered stealing at all. This is why you cannot “steal” words in an academic paper. One of the purposes behind an academic paper is to assess how much you know about a particular subject. Because this is an assessment of your personal knowledge base, you cannot take the knowledge base of others and claim it as your own. And even though in an effort to jumpstart your writing, many teachers have told you to just pretend like you are having a conversation with somebody, the reality is that in an academic paper, while you are having a conversation, it is unlike any conversation you have ever encountered in any other context.

Plagiarism in academic writing is bad: yes,  you get the picture. So if plagiarism is bad, how can you keep from plagiarizing in your academic writing? Here are a few guidelines:

  • Whenever using the exact words that another author has used, you must put those words in quotations and provide an in-text citation.
  • Whenever using a particular concept that you learned while reading an outside source, although you do not have to utilize quotation marks, you must provide an in-text citation referencing your source.
  • Whenever you are referencing an idea that could be considered common knowledge, you do not have to provide a quotation or an in-text citation.

Remember: even though your academic writing is supposed to display your own, personal knowledge, you do not have to go at the writing process alone. At the Writing Center, we are trained (and excited!) to help you at all stages of the writing process, and that includes the stage where you are trying to figure out whether or not your words are your own words.

 

-AR

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