Chapter 13: Avoiding Plagiarism and Integrating Sources
To discuss professionalism and writing, we should begin with the most obvious problem: plagiarism. Outright plagiarism, the use of another’s ideas without attribution, is always a serious offense. However, many students plagiarize “accidentally”—that is, they fail to cite information they took from a source because they quickly, if tentatively, assess that the information they chose resides in a “gray area,” and thus it might not need to be cited. They reason, “Why bother if I’m unsure?”, or “Why risk doing it poorly?” Further, students frequently oversimplify this issue by rationalizing that the information appeared in an encyclopedia or in several books and therefore it need not be cited. In one case, a student argued, “If it’s on the internet, by definition, it’s common knowledge, and therefore I don’t have to cite it.” This is faulty logic because ideas, even those shared on the internet, belong to their creator. Such thinking causes instructors pain.
What such writers must realize is that one’s use and citation of sources has to be both reflective and discerning. The quality and context of your sources matter just as much as their content, and you are obliged to assess that quality and consider whether and how best to establish that context. Your readers—especially your professors—will naturally be assessing quality and context in the act of reading, and they will expect you to have done the same. When using web-based sources, your responsibility to cite your material conscientiously remains, and in fact your responsibility to assess the credibility of the information increases simply because the material did in fact appear on the web.
Further, if you see in-text citation of sources as a final, merely trivial step to writing rather than as an integral part, you are bound to slip up somewhere in your citation practice or lose track of the relationship between your own ideas and those of your sources. I am always surprised at the number of students who sit down with me to review a “complete” paper draft, yet with no sources cited. “Oh, I do that last,” they say, then during our tutorials we invariably encounter problems that can only be reconciled by a better handling of source material. Stated simply, using sources well in your paper is not a matter of mere mechanics; it is the art of blending source material within the context of a focused argument as you write. The following video talks about how to avoid plagiarizing:
Unfortunately, the norm for many students is that they spend hours unreflectively surfing the web with an overly broad research focus, or they quickly Xerox anything that looks relevant in the library, then, twenty-four or twelve hours before the deadline, they sit down and start tapping madly into the word processor, sometimes simply lifting whole paragraphs from their sources and hoping that it looks like their own work, loudly assuring themselves and their friends that they “work best under pressure.” If this is your technique, you will find that it fails you miserably when it comes to writing a thesis or working on a lengthy writing project on the job. Writing a long research paper in a day is a bit like pulling an all-nighter on Christmas Eve to crochet a quilt—the end product looks hurried and flimsy, and you can be sure that you have left many loose ends and produced a lousy Christmas gift.
For additional information on the perils of plagiarism, check out CNM’s Academic Integrity Policy.
How to Cite Your Sources
A colleague once told me a story that proves how small the academic world can be while underscoring the best reason to document sources: Doing so is likely to make you friends; failing to do so can only make you enemies. This colleague was asked to review a proposal submitted to the National Science Foundation, and was irate when he realized that an author of the proposal did not acknowledge my colleague’s work when he clearly should have. An investigation confirmed my colleague’s suspicions, which stung all the more because he had once actually nominated the author for an award. For my colleague, the author, and the National Science Foundation, this became an unpleasant situation all around, breeding distrust and embarrassment. A great deal of time was wasted since all of this could have been avoided if the author had merely put his research into the appropriate context by properly acknowledging his sources. Instead, the author—whether intentionally or not—plagiarized, thus hurting other members of his proposal team as well.
When you write papers, you might be tempted to plagiarize to try to cover up the fact that almost all of your paper came directly from sources or that you relied heavily on the internet for your research. Your well-read professors will not be fooled by this tactic, though, and part of your job as a researcher and writer is to organize, assimilate, and recast your information in your own form. If you find yourself using the same source for several paragraphs in a row or failing even to provide your own topic sentences for paragraphs, you are obviously not doing your job as a thinking writer. Do not fall back on the flimsy excuse that you might as well just copy it exactly as it appeared because you “like the way it was written.” The context for your writing is different from the context of the original. The reason you use sources in the first place is to simplify and summarize information and weave it into the pattern of your own ideas, and your pattern of ideas will develop as you write and do your research.
Use the following list as a reminder of the information that must be cited—whether web-based or print-based:
- Quotations, opinions, and predictions, whether directly quoted or paraphrased.
- Statistics derived by the original author.
- Visuals in the original.
- Another author’s theories.
- Case studies.
- Another author’s direct experimental methods or results.
- Another author’s specialized research procedures or findings.
If you use specific information of the type just mentioned, document it; otherwise you could be plagiarizing. Better safe than lazy, and if you make a mistake, err on the side of over-citing. By citing the source of your information, you point to an authority rather than ask your reader to trust your memory or what might appear to be your own idea. Even though you can recall a statistic or a description of a process, for example, citation of such information—if it came directly from a source—gives more credibility to your writing and underscores the accuracy, timeliness, and even the potential bias of your information. In short, be honest, smart, and safe.
How to Integrate Source Material
In technical writing, integrating source material is a process of selection, extraction, and re-contextualizing. Technical writing rarely relies on direct quotations because the author’s exact wording is usually not as relevant as the data or information reported. Suppose you are writing a technical paper on mine safety, for example, and you encounter this material:
“Since 1870, 121,000 mining deaths have occurred; 1.7 million lost-time injuries have been recorded since 1930. Historically, all of this has contributed to the public’s negative perception of mining safety and even helped to fuel the NIMBY mentality.”
It is highly unlikely that you would quote these sentences directly, especially because some of the material is data and some is interpretation. The exact wording does not matter, but some of the material does, so your job is to extract only the relevant information, use it, and cite the source.
Similarly, there is no good reason to quote this sentence directly:
“Acid mine drainage has been and continues to be a major problem generated by the mining of coal in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the world.”
In this instance, the information is so general that it need not even be cited, but neither should the sentence itself just be plucked out and plopped into your paper. Ideally, the information from the above sentence would simply end up as part of a sentence of your own creation such as this one:
This paper explores the three chief reasons why acid mine drainage continues to be a major environmental problem in Pennsylvania.
In this example, note how the relevant information is extracted from the source, without the need for citation, and note how the writer creates new context for the information.
Blending Source Material with Your Own Work
When working with sources, many students worry they are simply regurgitating ideas that others formulated. That is why it is important for you to develop your own assertions, organize your findings so that your own ideas are still the thrust of the paper, and take care not to rely too much on any one source, or your paper’s content might be controlled too heavily by that source.
In practical terms, some ways to develop and back up your assertions include:
- Blend sources with your assertions. Organize your sources before and as you write so that they blend (think of this as smoothly transitioning between your ideas and the content you are using), even within paragraphs. Your paper—both globally and at the paragraph level—should reveal relationships among your sources, and should also reveal the relationships between your own ideas and those of your sources.
- Write an original introduction and conclusion. As much as is practical, make the paper’s introduction and conclusion your own ideas or your own synthesis of the ideas inherent in your research. Creating a unique and original introduction will help you maintain your assertions throughout the body of your writing. Use sources minimally in your introduction and conclusion.
- Open and close paragraphs with originality. In general, use the openings and closing of your paragraphs to reveal your work—”enclose” your sources among your assertions. At a minimum, create your own topic sentences and wrap-up sentences for paragraphs.
- Use transparent rhetorical strategies. When appropriate, outwardly practice such rhetorical strategies as analysis, synthesis, comparison, contrast, summary, description, definition, hierarchical structure, evaluation, hypothesis, generalization, classification, and even narration. Prove to your reader that you are thinking as you write.
Also, you must clarify where your own ideas end and the cited information begins. Part of your job is to help your reader draw the line between these two ideas or concepts, often by the way you create context for the cited information. A phrase such as “A 1979 study revealed that . . .” is an obvious announcement of citation to come. Another recommended technique is the insertion of the author’s name into the text to announce the beginning of your cited information. You may worry that you are not allowed to give the actual names of sources you have studied in the paper’s text, but just the opposite is true. In fact, the more respectable a source you cite, the more impressed your reader is likely to be with your material while reading. If you note that the source is the NASA Science website or an article by Stephen Jay Gould or a recent edition of The Wall Street Journal right in your text, you offer your readers immediate context without their having to guess or flip to the references page to look up the source.
What follows is an excerpt from a political science paper that clearly and admirably draws the line between writer and cited information:
The above political upheaval illuminates the reasons behind the growing Iranian hatred of foreign interference; as a result of this hatred, three enduring geopolitical patterns have evolved in Iran, as noted by John Limbert. First . . .
Note how the writer begins by redefining her previous paragraph’s topic (political upheaval), then connects this to Iran’s hatred of foreign interference, then suggests a causal relationship and ties her ideas into John Limbert’s analysis—thereby announcing that a synthesis of Limbert’s work is coming. This writer’s work also becomes more credible and meaningful because, right in the text, she announces the name of a person who is a recognized authority in the field. Even in this short excerpt, it is obvious that this writer is using proper citation and backing up her own assertions with confidence and style.
Adapted from “Chapter 5 Using Sources” of Style for Students Online: Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age, used according to creative common (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US)
Anatomy of a Well-Cited Paragraph
Writing a paragraph with the sources properly cited can seem a tricky task at first, but the process is straightforward enough, especially when we analyze an example. Writing a sound paragraph is actually just a matter of thinking clearly about a topic you have researched and transferring that thinking to the page. To illustrate, a tidy sample paragraph follows, with the sources properly documented in the author-year system. Next, the genesis of the paragraph is analyzed.
The millions of species of plants and animals on the earth have a phenomenal influence on the human species. Not only do they provide a substantial amount of our food, they are of great value in medicine and science. Over 60 percent of the purchases we make at the pharmacy contain substances that are derived from wild organisms (Myers 2008). Studies of plants and animals have led to discoveries in virtually all of the sciences, from biology and chemistry to psychology and astronomy (Wilson 2001). Furthermore, plants and animals are vital to the maintenance of our ecosystem. Their diversity and balance directly control food webs, nutrient diversity, supplies of fresh water, climate consistency, and waste disposal (Eberly 1988). Finally, many species act as barometers of our environment. The salmon, for example, is extremely sensitive to changes in the condition of the water in which it lives. Any abnormality in population or behavior of fish usually indicates some type of chemical imbalance in the water. The same is true of butterflies and their responses to the environment within prominent agricultural areas. Clearly, the millions of species of plants and animals in the world are vital to the continued thriving of the human population.
Now let’s walk through the paragraph and its use of sources:
- The first two sentences assert the author’s personal view about the value of the world’s species (a view shaped by his research, no doubt), which he is about to back up by using three recent sources.
- Next, the author cites a journal article (Myers) from which he extracted a statistic (“over 60 percent of the purchases we make at the pharmacy”). Without this source cited, the reader might believe that the author estimated loosely or simply relied on his memory for the statistic.
- The next source (Wilson) is cited because the paper author borrowed a general claim from a textbook by Wilson. The author was at first not sure whether to cite the source, but he wisely decided that he should because he realized that he had in fact had Wilson’s book open to a particular page and referred to it as he wrote the sentence.
- The next source (Eberly) is cited because the author had browsed through a whole chapter of Eberly’s book in order to compose the list in the sentence, usually using Eberly’s exact section headings from the chapter as the list members.
- The final examples of the salmon and the butterfly were based directly on the author’s personal experience of working at a fish hatchery for a summer, so documenting sources was not an issue. The fact that the author finds a way to tie this experiential knowledge in with his research is testimony to the fact that he is thinking as he writes the paragraph.
This breakdown of his source citations showcases how the writer blends/integrates his sources, but he does not allow them to do the thinking for him. More evidence of the author’s control over his material resides in his transparent mid-paragraph transition sentence (beginning with “Furthermore”), his labeling of species as “barometers” of the environment a few sentences later, and his closing sentence, which wraps up the paragraph’s ideas neatly by making an affirmative and confident statement that backs up his topic sentence and examples.
Not every paragraph should look exactly like this, of course, but every paragraph should be written with the same kind of conscientiousness about how, when, and why the sources are cited.
Adapted from “Chapter 5 Using Sources” of Style for Students Online: Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age, used according to creative common (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US)
Ethics and Documentation
Documenting your sources includes showing exactly what information you borrowed in the body of your writing and in a Works Cited, Works, or References (the different terms reflect different documentation systems, not just random preference) list at the end.
Including an item only in the source list at the end suggests you have used the source in the report, but if you have not cited this source in the text as well, you could be seen as misleading the reader. Either you are saying it is a source when in fact you did not actually use anything from it, or you have simply failed to clarify in the text what are your ideas and what comes from other sources.
It is also unethical to document a source in a misleading way, where the source is hard to identify—that would include using just a URL or using an article title without identifying the journal in which it appears (in the Works Cited/References; you would not likely identify the journal name in the report’s body). Unethical source use also includes falsifying the nature of the source, such as omitting the number of pages in the Works Cited entry to make a brief note seem to be a full article.
Unethical source use includes suppressing information about how you have used a source, such as not making clear that graphical information in your report was already a graph in your source, as opposed to a graph you created on the basis of information in the source.
Note that many problems in documenting sources occur because the writer is missing the point of source use:
- you must clearly distinguish between your ideas and borrowed material, and
- you must use borrowed material primarily as evidence for your own, directly stated ideas.
If you blend source material together with your ideas (including as “your ideas” your analysis or application of borrowed materials), you will indeed find that showing exactly what is borrowed versus what is yours is impossible. That is because you cannot ethically blend your ideas together with source material. Any time you find you cannot apply documentation principles, consider whether you are using the source(s) unethically. Students often argue that they cannot separate their ideas from borrowed ideas because they would then have to document the whole paper—if that is true, the paper is most certainly not making “fair use” of the sources.
Adapted from Technical Writing: 9.4 Ethics and Documenting Sources by Allison Gross, Annemarie Hamlin, Billy Merck, Chris Rubio, Jodi Naas, Megan Savage, and Michele DeSilva is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.
Ethics, Plagiarism, and Reliable Sources
Unlike personal or academic writing, technical, professional, and workplace writing can be used to evaluate your job performance and can have implications that a writer may or may not have considered. Whether you are writing for colleagues within your workplace or outside vendors or customers, you will want to build a solid, well-earned favorable reputation for yourself with your writing. Your goal is to maintain and enhance your credibility, and that of your organization, at all times.
Credibility can be established through many means: using appropriate professional language, citing highly respected sources, providing reliable evidence, and using sound logic. Make sure as you start your research that you always question the credibility of the information you find. Are the sources popular or scholarly? Are they peer reviewed by experts in the field? Are the methods and arguments used based on solid reasoning and sound evidence? Are the authors identifiable and do they have appropriate credentials? Be cautious about using sources that are not reviewed by peers or editor, or in which the information seems misleading, biased, or even false. Be a wise information consumer in your own reading and research in order to build your own reputation as an honest, ethical writer.
Quoting the work of others in your writing is fine, provided that you credit the source fully enough that your readers can find it on their own. If you fail to take careful notes, or the sentence is present in your writing but later fails to include accurate attribution, it can have a negative impact on you and your organization. That is why it is important that when you find an element you would like to incorporate in your document, in the same moment as you copy and paste or make a note of it in your research file, you need to note the source in a complete enough form to find it again. Creating and maintaining a document with the URLs, document titles, and authors’ names is a great way to maintain your research source materials.
Giving credit where credit is due will build your credibility and enhance your document. Moreover, when your writing is authentically yours, your audience will catch your enthusiasm, and you will feel more confident in the material you produce. Just as you have a responsibility in business to be honest in selling your product of service and avoid cheating your customers, so you have a responsibility in business writing to be honest in presenting your idea, and the ideas of others, and to avoid cheating your readers with plagiarized material.
Adapted from Technical Writing 9.5 Ethics, Plagiarism, and Reliable Sources by Allison Gross, Annemarie Hamlin, Billy Merck, Chris Rubio, Jodi Naas, Megan Savage, and Michele DeSilva is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.
Many organizations and employers have a corporate code of ethics. If you are a technical writer and you join a professional associations such as the Society of Technical Communicators you will need to be aware their codes of ethics, published online (e.g. http://www.stc.org/about-stc/ethical-principles). If you are a technical writer researching and writing a report within a specific professional field, you will also need to be aware to that field’s codes of ethics. For example, let’s say you are writing a report for a group of physical therapists on the latest techniques for rehabilitating knee surgery patients. You should be aware of the code of ethics for physical therapists so that you work within those principles as you research and write your report.
Look for the codes of ethics in your own discipline and begin to read and understand what will be expected of you as a professional in your field.
Adapted from Technical Writing: 9.6 Professional Ethics by Allison Gross, Annemarie Hamlin, Billy Merck, Chris Rubio, Jodi Naas, Megan Savage, and Michele DeSilva is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.