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Research Fundamentals Tutorial

The plagiarism trap

College student with laptop and notebook. Your paper is due in three days and you’re just starting your research. You quickly run a search and find three sources that might work for your paper. You scan through the first one and find a perfect quote, which you copy and paste into a Google Doc where you’ve started your outline and typed out some ideas. Now you start scanning the next source, but you’re interrupted by a text from your boss asking you to come in as soon as possible. You quickly log off so you can catch the bus.

If you open up your Google Doc later you may find the copied text mixed in with your notes and not remember that it’s copied. If you incorporate this into your final paper, it’s plagiarism.

How can this be avoided? Before every step of the information gathering process, there are things you can do to help your future self avoid plagiarism.

Before you search:

Start a document for gathering citations. As you find sources, copy and paste citations from databases and web addresses from websites, even if you’re not sure you’ll use them. You can always delete the citations later.

Before you read:

Print out all your sources and staple a blank page to the back of each one. As you read your source, underline passages you may want to quote or refer to, and take notes only on the blank page attached to the article.

Or, for every source you read, start a new document or notebook page with the citation at the top. Take notes on your reading only on the corresponding page, and be sure to use quotation marks whenever you are copying word for word.

Resist the urge to copy and paste. In 30 seconds you could copy text from three different articles, paste it into your paper, and immediately confuse your words with someone else's. If you must copy and paste, try pasting the text into a separate document where you’re only taking notes on one source at a time.

Before you write:

Read and take notes on all of your sources before you start outlining your paper. Once you have read everything, you may start to form an overall picture of your topic in your mind—and you might even have ideas of your own. Base your paper on those ideas rather than the words, ideas, or structure of any particular source.

Before you submit:

If you’re not sure whether something you’ve written is your words or someone else’s, do what your professor does: Enter a passage of your text into a search engine like Google or Bing, and see if any exact matches come up. If your text comes up in a Google search, it’s not original.

Many professors have their students turn in assignments through a plagiarism checker like Turnitin. Turnitin will flag problem areas in a paper that you might want to address before you submit your final paper. Turnitin also helps your professor find areas for plagiarism concerns in student papers.

Before you worry:

Ask for help. Your professor, writing tutors, and librarians are here to help you navigate the murky waters of plagiarism. It's our job to help you, so please reach out for help as early and as often as you can.


Image Credit: CollegeDegrees360 via Flickr.