What counts as plagiarism in college essays?

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Answered by: Alex, An Expert in the Writing Quality Essays Category
Plagiarism, when it's at its worst, is easy to define. If you present someone else's text or ideas as your own, you have just plagiarized. In universities, newsrooms, and other places where people write, plagiarism is a serious offense that can earn you a pink slip or an expulsion.

Most plagiarism in college essays isn't that blatant, however. You might accidentally plagiarize by forgetting to cite your sources or by mimicking the word choice of other writers. See if one of these potential or not-so-obvious cases of plagiarism applies to you:

1. I copied and pasted a sentence that someone else wrote, and then changed some of the words around. For example, I found this sentence in a book by Adrienne Saito, "A human lives always inside a window of generosity." Then, in my own paper, I changed the sentence to, "A person always lives in a window of amiability."

You have just plagiarized. Remember that the job of a writer is to write. Changing "generosity" to "amiability" may prove that you have a thesaurus, but true writers should have the skill to convey ideas in their own words. Read over Saito's whole chapter or section. Then summarize the ideas that were relevant and give her credit. Don't yank out individual sentences as though Saito were dictating your paper.

2. I use the same key terms as my sources. For example, my essay is about fetal alcohol syndrome, but the website that I'm citing uses the phrase "fetal alcohol syndrome" many times as well.

You have not plagiarized by using the same key terms as your sources. Only worry about key terms if they are specific to an author. For example, if you found the word "cyberliteracy" in a book by Laura J. Gurak and you want to use it in your paper, just remember to give her credit. Unlike "fetal alcohol syndrome," cyberliteracy is not widely used.

3. I summarized (paraphrased) a source, but didn't show where I got the information. For example, I wrote, "When scientific fields undergo a crisis,they experience a revolution that leads to a change in paradigm." I found this information in a book by Thomas Kuhn, but I didn't credit him.

If the information isn't common knowledge then you have just plagiarized. The problem is that "common knowledge" depends on the context. A philosopher writing for fellow philosophers might refer to a "paradigm shift" without stating Kuhn's name at all. In this case, the writer expects his readers to already know about Kuhn and his ideas because Kuhn is famous in their field. If writing for a general audience, however, let the reader know the source of the idea.

Now let's look at how plagiarism in college essays can be avoided. The following is a sentence from page 45 of an article by Hans Santiago: "Behind every smile lay a vortex of selfishness." To communicate this idea in your own writing, summarize it and give Santiago credit:

Hans Santiago (2004) believes that friendliness is just a veneer (p. 45).

Alternatively, if you want to use a source's exact wording, put quotation marks around the parts of your document that you didn't write yourself:

Hans Santiago (2004) believes that friendliness is a mask over "a vortex of selfishness" (p. 45).

Above all, don't let your sources tell you what to write. When you do research, pull out ideas, not words, and then give your sources proper credit. If you're careful, you shouldn't have to ask what counts as plagiarism in college essays at all.

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