What is plagiarism?
Plagiarism is an act of intellectual dishonesty in which a person claims as his or her own the ideas or words of another person.
When does this happen?
It is likely to happen when the beginning student writes an essay or report for a course. The student may have lots of original ideas, but also want to include in the essay some information obtained from books and articles. Or perhaps the challenge is to write an individual report describing a group project, during which the opportunity arises to "borrow" material from a friend's version. If this other information is simply written into the essay without qualification, it will mislead the reader into believing that the information originated with the essay writer.
How can that be avoided?
It is legitimate for the writer to include published information from other sources in the essay, providing that it is correctly attributed. That will make it clear who supplied the ideas, opinions or facts in question. In psychology research papers and essays, this is done using a standard format known as "APA style" (after the American Psychological Association). The Psychology Department has a handout describing this style. Basically it requires the essay writer to include the authors of the source material and the date it was published in parentheses after the information is presented in the essay. For example, ...... (Smith and Brown, 1994). All cited sources are then identified in a reference list at the end of the essay or paper.
So if I cite the source of information I use in an essay, that will ensure that I avoid plagiarism?
Not quite; that is only half the solution. You must also paraphrase the information in a way that is not misleading. Paraphrasing means taking another person's ideas and stating them in your own words. As long as the words are your own, and the source of the ideas is cited, you are not plagiarizing.
But what if I cannot think of a better way of stating it than in the original author's words?
This is a common problem that can be addressed in one of two ways. If you feel you must preserve the original author's words, include them in your essay in "quotation marks." Make sure that what you do quote is exactly as it was written. You should not include a lot of direct quotes. Limit them to occasions where you are convinced that there would be a significant loss in translation if you paraphrased the idea. Most of the time, use paraphrasing; it is a challenging but very important skill that you should learn.
Just how picky will the marker be? Do I have to change every word when I paraphrase?
Here is a rough guide as to where to draw the line. If you find that you have to refer directly to the source material as you are writing down the idea when composing your essay, then you are copying. And if you do not put the copied words in quotation marks, that is plagiarism. However, if you put aside the original work after reading it, and use your own words when writing about the other person's ideas, you are paraphrasing. Just don't forget to cite the source.
What happens to a student who is discovered to have included plagiarized material in an essay or report for a course?
There is range of disciplinary steps the course instructor can take: giving a zero mark on the paper; submitting a failing grade for the course; or in extreme cases recommending to the President that the student be suspended from the University. You should assume that course instructors and teaching assistants are familiar with standard sources in their area, and that they check all essays and research papers for plagiarized material. Students found guilty of plagiarism typically pay a heavy price for their academic dishonesty.
Anything else I should know?
One final caution. When you submit an essay in a course, the instructor expects it not only to be in your own words (except for material in quotation marks), but also to be original. That is, it should not be an essay that has already been submitted for a grade in another course. That sort of "double counting" is not acceptable. If you find your essay partially overlaps something you have written previously, check with your instructor before proceeding.