In Your Own Words: The Problem of Plagiarism

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It’s somewhat difficult to believe that students at one of the most exclusive Ivy League universities would be involved in a plagiarism scandal, yet that is exactly what was announced on August 30. The allegation relates to answers submitted for a take home exam in May 2012. According to Bloomberg, irregularities in exam submissions were first noticed by a teaching fellow who spotted similar and in some cases exact phrasing across multiple papers. Further examination of the exam papers raised doubts for 125 of the students enrolled on the course. Harvard’s Dean of Undergraduate Education, Jay Harriss, declined to name the particular course in question, although Rebecca Robbins, staff writer for Harvard’s student newspaper, claims that the scandal relates to Government 1310: “Introduction to Congress.”

The Harvard cheating scandal is thought to be one of the most widespread instances of intentional plagiarism in memory. If the allegations turn out to be true, there’s really no excuse for this kind of cheating, but what about unintentional plagiarism?

Clearly, things like paraphrasing too closely or incorrectly citing a source is not on the same level as actively colluding on an exam paper, but nonetheless it is still considered plagiarism and can bring about serious repercussions for a student. The Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA) provide a concise definition of plagiarism when they state that “in an instructional setting, plagiarism occurs when a writer deliberately uses someone else’s language, ideas, or other original (not common-knowledge) material without acknowledging its source.”

How to Avoid Plagiarism

There are several in-depth and freely available guides which show how to recognize plagiarism and how to avoid it in academic writing. The Writing Tutorial Services department at Indiana University states that key strategies that help students to avoid plagiarism relate to the proper use of quotations and correct paraphrasing.

– Use Quotations

Every piece of text that is taken directly from a book or other source of information should be put inside quotation marks. It’s especially important to do this while taking notes to avoid forgetting later during the write up stage. There are several schools of thought as to how the original source should be cited. Among the most popular are APA Style, the Chicago Manual of Style and the Harvard Referencing Guide. Different colleges may favour one style over another, or have their own way of doing things, so students should check the style preferred by their particular institution.

– Paraphrase Properly

It’s okay to paraphrase the ideas of others, but that doesn’t mean just rearranging sentence structure or changing some of the words for alternatives. It means conveying the same information or opinion by using your own words and giving due credit to the original source. To find out more about this, the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) provides six steps to effective paraphrasing.

Avoiding plagiarism, unintentional or otherwise, is the responsibility of the student. Referring to these guidelines when researching and writing assignments should help with the question of how to avoid plagiarism. Additional help with general writing can be sought from the online writing labs provided by many universities and colleges.

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