In academia, we take plagiarism very seriously; the sheer accusation of it has left a shadow over the careers of even the most prestigious scholars (click here for a list of famous plagiarism incidents). It is extremely important to avoid all iterations of plagiarism when writing your thesis. The tips in this blog can help you to identify and avoid plagiarism, while working on your research project.
What Is Plagiarism?
Thankfully, academic plagiarism has definite parameters. While each university (and often each PhD program) has their own code of academic conduct, most of them share a basic definition of plagiarism (for example, here is Harvard University’s definition of plagiarism). In short, plagiarism is committed when you present someone else’s idea as your own or don’t properly cite information from pre-existing sources. There are two basic forms of plagiarism: (1) using the exact wording from an existing source (i.e., book, journal article, website, etc.) without using quotation marks to identify the quoted content and citing its source; (2) describing or appropriating concepts or information learned from another source without citing it.
Plagiarism can be as short as four words in a row or as long and vague as your thesis’s entire premise. Whether intentional or inadvertent, it is critically important to carefully avoid plagiarism throughout the thesis-writing process.
Why Is Plagiarism Wrong or Harmful?
Aside from being dishonest, one of the main problems with academic plagiarism is that it undermines the scholarly process. Plagiarism steals from the hard work of previous scholars without giving credit where it is due. Your thesis is meant to be an original piece of scholarship that offers new insights into your field of study. While your thesis will be supported and corroborated by a wealth of previous literature, it must be clear exactly how your thesis is situated within your field.
What Are The Risks of Being Caught Plagiarizing?
Whether intentional or unintentional, plagiarism’s risks far outweigh any possible benefit. While unintentional plagiarism may just bring a stiff reprimand from your supervisor, if the plagiarism is proven to be intentional, you stand to be expelled from your university and barred from earning your PhD.
While the internet has made it even easier to plagiarise—as copying and pasting information from a journal article or a website into a working draft takes only a few seconds—the Information Age has also made it easier for inquiring minds to catch those who have played fast and loose with their sources. Websites like Turnitin.com and Plagium make it very easy for your advisor to know whether your content is the least bit unoriginal. Not only will these sites show what content has been plagiarised, they will reveal the source from which the content was derived.
How to Avoid Accidental Plagiarism
Plagiarism is still plagiarism, even if you don’t mean to do it. Accidently leaving out quotations marks around unique phrases can leave you vulnerable to what can best be termed “accidental plagiarism.” The verdict is still out on whether the late historian Stephen Ambrose intentionally used identical phrases from another historian. Ambrose apologised publicly, though he argued that he was merely guilty of sloppy research practices, rather than academic dishonesty. His reputation has forever been tarnished as a result. Don’t let something similar happen to your thesis after years of work and take care to cite all of your sources
In order to avoid plagiarism, quotation marks and parentheses may be your most important allies. Use them religiously during the draft phases of the thesis-writing process—even if it’s only three or four words strung together that you liked from another source, quote and cite them. In academia, especially in the humanities, it’s difficult to over-cite your sources. Those reading your work prefer to see the footprint of where you have been intellectually—what you have read and how you came to your conclusions. When in doubt, always err on the side of caution and cite your source.
While you should always cite your sources, your thesis committee does not want to read a thesis full of quotations. Overusing quotations implies to the reader that you don’t have anything original to say. You should paraphrase (i.e., completely rewrite) and synthesize quotations into your own thoughts and words as much as possible—especially with secondary sources. While directly quoting primary sources can be necessary for some disciplines (history and religious studies in particular), in general, a dissertation should be replete with your own thoughts and insights about both primary source content and previous scholarship. Avoid direct quotations whenever possible. (Are you unsure of the difference between a primary and secondary source? Click here for Princeton University’s definition.)
Another helpful tool to avoid plagiarism is a citation and research management software like EndNote. EndNote will help you organise your sources and centralise all your research into one place. You can also download important articles and texts to keep on hand for later use. This way, if you wonder whether a certain phrase is yours or someone else’s, you can do a quick online search to be sure. If you’re unfamiliar with EndNote and how it can be useful to the thesis writing process, please click here to read a brief overview of the software and its usefulness to doctoral students.
Don’t plagiarise. It might seem like a little plagiarism or sloppy source work increases the efficiency of the thesis-writing process, but aside from being intellectually deceitful and putting you in danger of expulsion, it is also counterproductive to your long-term career viability. Pulitzer Prize winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin had to resign from the Pulitzer committee and from PBS MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour after it came to light that she had used significant portions of another book in her 1987 work on the Kennedy family. She is not the first prominent scholar to lose credibility, and she most certainly won’t be the last. Luckily, with some careful effort, plagiarism is easy to avoid.
Need Help with your References or Citations?
Feel free to call or e-mail us at any time to discuss your concerns directly with a thesis consultant—free of charge! We can review your document in depth and show you exactly which portions are missing references. We can also review your citations, footnotes, and references and ensure that they are complete and in the proper citation style (for example, APA 7th Ed., Harvard, MLA, etc.).
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Flaherty, Colleen. “Beyond Plagiarism.” Inside Higher Ed. Accessed March 24, 2014. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/03/21/experts-explore-plagiarism-beyond-traditional-definition
Herrington, TyAnna K. Intellectual Property on Campus: Students’ Rights and Responsibilities. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 2010.
Robin, Ron. Scandals and Scoundrels: Seven Cases that Shook the Academy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
Sutherland-Smith, Wendy. Plagiarism, the Internet and Student Learning. New York: Routledge, 2008.