Stephen Ambrose loved history; his prolific writing attests to a mind alive with great historical narratives, such as Band of Brothers. Early in his career, he made a mistake in acknowledging source materials: he had cited a work in his bibliography, but had failed to quote key phrases and attribute them to their authors (http://chronicle.com/article/Stephen-Ambrose-Faces-New/116113/). His mistake occurred prior to the age of the internet and led to an accusation of plagiarism later in his academic career. Mr. Ambrose made a mistake in accurately quoting materials, a common mistake for many college students. If Mr. Ambrose could make such a novice mistake, why is it so surprising that student-writers make the same mistake?
Such mistakes are not so surprising, but student-writers’ lack of knowledge about plagiarism and ways of preventing it are surprising and troubling. In fact, plagiarism is one part of the larger concern about academic dishonesty, which includes making up data, hiding resources, reusing an old assignment, giving your essay to someone else to use, or even collaborating on an assignment when it isn’t allowed.
Student-writers often take sloppy notes, and in the age of internet, sloppy note-taking in the form of cutting-and-pasting information has become a very common habit. Even though the internet makes citing sources and tracking information easier, students who quilt together information by grabbing it off of the internet usually fail to cite or to summarize or paraphrase. Sloppy note-taking and ignorance about citation protocols make many students vulnerable to committing plagiarism. Ignorance and laziness do not excuse plagiarism, but knowledge and time management can prevent it.
Plagiarism happens when you represent someone else’s work as your own and/or do not properly cite your source material. In general, we usually think of plagiarism as it relates to research and writing, but it also includes all types of information and ideas, such as images, graphs, diagrams, statistics, or videos. Any of that information that is easily copied from the internet or elsewhere must be cited. The best strategy for preventing plagiarism is to take notes in your own words and to document notes as you take them. Do not wait until you have finished your whole project to insert your documentation! If you take careful notes along the way, then drafting your paper will become easier.
Learning how to summarize, paraphrase, and quote correctly will help you to avoid sloppiness in note-taking. Here are a few basic tips for taking notes from a written source:
- Understand the context of the material. In other words, read the whole article, not just the abstract or the first few pages.
- Use your own words to write about the author’s ideas. Avoid highlighting and underlining as your main strategy, since neither will reinforce your understanding of the ideas.
- Avoid cutting and pasting large portions of an article into your notes or your paper.
- Look up difficult words and think about the ways these words are used in your discipline.
- Set aside the text, think about it, and then write your notes (summarize or paraphrase). If you can’t find your own words to explain the ideas, then you may still be struggling to understand.
For detailed strategies on how to use summary, paraphrase, and quotation in a paper, please see “Using Sources” under Writing Tips.
Mastering the art of note-taking solves one part of the paper writing task, but the other part includes time management. Procrastination can lead to hasty research, sloppy notes, and inadvertent plagiarism. Familiarize yourself with the course syllabus early in the term and mark due dates on your calendar. Also, include goals in your calendar prior to the due date, such as gather research articles, read and take notes, write draft, visit the MFD Writing Center, and revise. If you cultivate an interest in your studies and research projects, focused work and time management will not be onerous.
The best ways to prevent plagiarism include to acknowledge your source material with citations, avoid cutting and pasting large pieces of information from the internet, take notes in your own words, manage your time efficiently, and cultivate an interest in your studies. Enjoy the opportunity to learn and to add your voice to the community of scholars you have joined at the university.