Research: Five tips to avoid plagiarism

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Plagiarism is a serious issue for any writer. Intentional or accidental, journalists and researchers understand how easily it can happen, even for the most ethical among us.

These days, with more untrained writers posting articles online, quickly netting thousands to millions of hits, we should all be on the lookout.

For this column I must cull, curate and collect chunks of data, analyses, and arguments before I begin to see how they might weave together (in much less space), hopefully with some semblance of logic. By that point, words and ideas from my sources are mashed up with my own like a messy word casserole. So I have to be careful about — if not reproducing others’ work — at least giving them credit when I do.

Why should readers care? Without credibility and accuracy, the foundations of our perception, beliefs and opinions stand on shaky ground. So even if you’re not writing much, be wary of what you’re reading.

Plagiarism is defined by Dictionary.com as “… using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author.”

That’s trickier than it seems. When the concept is introduced in school it seems a simple copy-and-paste issue, making sure to cite sources when we do.

But what about the reasoning used for ideas and conclusions? Phrasing? Where do their thoughts end and your own begin?

Ideas and rationale are rarely or wholly original (that’s why you can’t patent an idea, only the application of it). More often than not, many people will come up with the same approach; that doesn’t mean we need to credit everyone who has. The very nature of human evolution involves building on each other’s experiences and wisdom.

So where’s the line? Here are five tips from the Educational Testing Service’s WriteCheck.com:

Paraphrase — After finding what you need, read and put it into your own words. Don’t copy verbatim more than two words in a row. If it’s more than two, use quotation marks.

Cite — The safest tack is to simply give credit. If it’s research or from a complete work, include the author(s) and a date reference.

Quoting — Use the quote exactly as it appears. If it’s too long, use three periods … where something is omitted, but be careful not to change meaning by doing so. Paraphrasing into fewer words (in parentheses) is possible, but it can be tricky and takes some skill. No one wants to be misquoted. Remember to include a citation, if the quote was published elsewhere.

Citing your own material — If you’ve created and used it before, you may need to cite yourself. Treat the text the same as you would if someone else wrote it. It may sound odd but using material you have used before is called self-plagiarism.

Referencing — This isn’t practical in every form of writing, but one way to avoid plagiarism is including a reference page or page of works cited at the end of a research paper.

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Today’s weird word is behindhand — after the fact.

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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