How To: Avoid Plagiarism

In academic writing (which, I would argue, includes all writing you might do at the graduate level), you often will find yourself synthesizing ideas from other sources and authors. You might be summarizing their contributions to contextualize your own, you might be arguing against some of their claims, or you might be describing how you leverage existing knowledge in the pursuit of new discoveries. So, the fundamental idea of sharing and referencing work is foundational to academic writing.

That can at times create an issue, though. It is critical that you be able to refer to others’ ideas, but it is also critical that you delineate and make clear your own contribution. One of the gravest academic sins is attempting to take credit, intentionally or accidentally, for someone else’s work.

Part of what makes this so insidious is exactly that distinction: intentionally or accidentally. It is possible to accidentally plagiarize if you are not careful, and accidental plagiarism can look a lot like intentional plagiarism. For this reason, “It was an accident!” is never an acceptable excuse for plagiarism; the only way to know whether plagiarism was accidental or intentional is to get into the author’s own mind, which is not possible.

For that reason, there are hard rules set up around how you reference others’ work. These rules are set up to ensure that your work is above any suspicion for plagiarism. Fortunately, as noted in the page How To: Use Citations in a Paper, these rules also dovetail nicely with other expectations on performing rigorous research.

Throughout this explanation, we’ll refer to one of my (David Joyner) papers, “Toward CS1 at Scale: Building and Testing a MOOC-for-Credit Candidate”.

In-Line Citations

In-line citations are the most important tool in your toolbox for avoiding suspicion of plagiarism. In writing, you are welcome and encouraged to quote others directly, as it minimizes the chance that you might be accused of misrepresenting others’ viewpoints to support your own. However, it is critical that whenever you quote someone directly, you clearly indicate that the words are theirs and not yours. This is done through in-line citations.

If you are quoting directly, you would use in-line citations combined with quotation marks. Stylistically, it is best to avoid plop quotes (quotes with no introduction text contextualizing or incorporating it into your own writing), but for integrity, the quotation and in-line citation information are most important. That said, there are many ways to accomplish this. You can introduce the quote directly, such as:

Online and traditional education can be equal. David Joyner writes, “students in the Online version perceived the course as higher quality and reported needing less time to reach those learning outcomes” (Joyner 2018).

Or, you can grammatically incorporate the quote into your own content:

Online and traditional education can be equal, and in fact research has found that “students in the Online version [of a class] perceived the course as higher quality and reported needing less time to reach those learning outcomes [compared to the Traditional version]” (Joyner 2018).

Brackets are often used in that way to grammatically incorporate the quote into your own writing, but be careful not to change its meaning. As far as plagiarism is concerned, however, the important thing is that any direct quote is both (a) included in quotation marks and (b) cited in-line. Failure to do either of those things constitutes plagiarism as, without the quotation marks and citation, the supposition is that they are your own words.

Notice, though, that nowhere in that guideline is a requirement of length. Many people have the misconception that plagiarism is only copying entire paragraphs or pages. Plagiarism can exist at the sentence or phrase level as well. Language is flexible and varied, and you will find that two people almost never arrive at the exact same order of words separately for any phrase longer than a few. So, if you get any phrase or sentence from another source, it must be cited as well, both with quotation marks and the in-line citation. Don’t let that scare you, though: you do not need to worry that you’re going to accidentally reiterate someone else’s exact phrasing for more than a handful of words. The odds are far too low for that to happen.

Notice also that there is a spectrum from direct quoting to paraphrasing. That same sentence last could have been nearer paraphrased like this:

Online and traditional education can be equal, and in fact research has found that students in an online class thought of the course as better quality and said they needed less time to achieve those learning goals compared to the Traditional version (Joyner 2018).

Nowhere in that sentence are more than 3 words in a row the same as the original quote, but it’s still obviously copied, replacing words with synonyms (higher to better, reach to achieve, etc.). Never do this; if you’re going to stay that close to the source material, just quote it. Near-paraphrasing without an in-line citation is still plagiarism.

What is more common is, though, is summarizing or pointing to others’ findings in the body of your own work. Rarely do others have well-defined quoteable sentences that summarize everything you want to use from their publication. Usually, this will take the form of referencing the finding itself in a way that is clearly distinct from the paper, like this:

Online and traditional education can be equal, and in fact research has found that students in online courses may achieve the same learning outcomes in less time (Joyner 2018).

If this feels complex, note that the minimum standard is very clear: whether in classwork or writing in the real academic or professional worlds, do not copy or closely-paraphrase content without in-line citations and quotation marks. Failure to clearly designate what content is not your original writing will be regarded as plagiarism.

Works Cited vs. References

In your past, you may have written papers with reference sections. These were lists of papers and other sources that you consulted in writing the work, regardless of whether or not they were cited in your paper. Generally in academic writing, you don’t do this; your references section is specifically a list of the references you cited in the body of your work. The reason is that these are the specific bricks you use to build your argument: plopping a reference you didn’t cite into your reference section is relatively meaningless because it does not tell the reader anything about how you used that source.

So, the works cited page is essentially, “Here’s how to find the sources I cited in-line in my paper.” It’s the academic writing version of hyperlinks (and in fact, some conference formats have started hyperlinking in-line citations to save readers’ time).

What about code?

Code is an interesting one because sharing code is generally far more common and accepted than sharing writing. The reason is that code serves more of a functional purpose, whereas writing usually only serves a purpose in the context of its author (except in some cases, like instruction manuals).

That said, code has its own issues with copying. There have been significant intellectual property cases based around people haphazardly borrowing code from open-source repositories without paying attention to the license stipulations, inadvertently rendering their company’s entire product open source because of stipulations about derivative works. So, it remains extremely important to document what code is borrowed. You should cite any copied code with in-line comments clearly indicating what code was borrowed and from where.

For the purposes of CS6460, as long as you document your sources and attend to their licensing agreements, it is okay to borrow code. For other classes that might be pointed to this page (hi, students of CS7637 and CS7646!), you should note that there may be other class-specific policies, such as a blanket ban on borrowing any code, especially from former students.

Plagiarism outside code and essays

Although we mostly talk about plagiarism in code and in essays, plagiarism is misrepresenting anyone else’s work as your own. This includes copying things like peer reviews, Piazza posts, and survey responses. The rules above do not just apply to essays: any time you are copying someone else’s words, they must be cited or quoted.