What’s the most dreaded letter that could appear on a transcript? I’ll wager that it’s not a “B,” or, gulp, a “C”, but a “P” as in “plagiarist.” In fact, if Hester Prynne were a 21st century student, instead of the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 19th century novel The Scarlet Letter, she’d probably be less concerned about having the letter “A,” as in “adulteress,” embroidered on her dress than that letter “P.” 

Over the last five years or so of correcting student essays for my history classes, I’ve seen a steady rise in the number of students who’ve plagiarized – using words or ideas that were not their own without citing a source. And it matters, of course, because plagiarism is the capital crime in academia, with consequences ranging from getting a zero on an assignment, which can torpedo a GPA, to expulsion, which can derail a career.

Part of the increase in incidents is because Google makes it easier and easier for teachers to track down the original, un-cited source; just plug in a suspect sentence, and you can usually find where it came from in a trice. That said, rest assured that no teacher wants to catch a student plagiarizing. When I read a sentence that seemed a little too erudite to go un-cited, my first response was, “ugh,” because it meant I had to write up an airtight case, have that case signed off on by a department head and division head, and then meet with the (usually distraught) student and his or her (usually irate) parents. Proof, paperwork, parents, pain: it’s no fun for anyone involved. 

From the student’s standpoint, the rise of plagiarism is, alas, sometimes the result of being so stressed and time-crunched that they take short cuts and hope they don’t get caught. But, more often, I think it’s because students are confused about what, exactly, constitutes plagiarism, and what doesn’t. That’s a scary, and risky, place to be, so here are some basics to keep in mind when it comes to citing sources.  

Of course, to make your academic life easier, you should start by double-checking your school’s rules about academic integrity. Also, for the first but not the last time in this blog, remember that, when in doubt, cite. And don’t forget that the best person to ask for guidance is your teacher: the grade, and the reputation, that you save will be your own. 

Nothing but the facts

As a rule, basic facts don’t need to be cited. I’ve had students parenthetically cite birth dates, the names of parents, and the location of battles, etc., which is not only unnecessary (see the next paragraph), but also makes reading an essay a chore. Here’s a rule of thumb: You don’t need to cite basic facts – names, dates, places – in the body of your essay as long as the source of those facts is in your bibliography. If I can flip to the end and see that The Encyclopedia Britannica is among your sources, I’ll be satisfied that that’s where the raw facts came from, and your teacher should be too.

Common knowledge – or not?

Any discussion of facts leads to the thorny issue of what’s rather unhelpfully categorized as “common knowledge.” The Academic Code for one of my alma maters, Brown University, states, “Citations and footnote references are required for all specific facts that are not common knowledge and about which there is not general agreement.” (The Academic Code, page 6). But what is, and isn’t, common knowledge? According to MIT, “Broadly speaking, common knowledge refers to information that the average, educated reader would accept as reliable without having to look it up.” (“What Is Common Knowledge?”) But, the University of South Carolina’s Upstate Library notes, "There is no clear boundary on what is considered common knowledge. Even experts on plagiarism disagree on what counts as common knowledge.” (“Identifying & Avoiding Plagiarism: Common Knowledge”). So the line can be tricky, but think of common knowledge as facts that can be easily found in more than one reliable source – figure a minimum of three – and that you think your friends and fellow students will likely know. Here are two examples: “Abraham Lincoln is widely considered to be one of America’s greatest presidents,” is common knowledge, as is, “World War II devasted Europe.” However, if you wrote, “Lincoln’s meeting with Black leaders in 1862 was part of his plan to promote recolonization,” or, “An estimated one in ten Belarusians died in World War II,” you would need a citation. (Note: I’m not citing these, or any other examples, because I’m conjuring them up for the sake of this blog.) 

Quotes, and parts thereof

Everyone, I think, knows that taking words verbatim from a source and incorporating them into an essay as your own without quotation marks or a citation is plagiarism. And, as noted, it’s a good way to get caught as teachers usually know their students well enough to have their antennae twitch when that student’s writing or sentence construction suddenly goes from amateur to pro. So you must use quotation marks and cite any sentence or part of a sentence (or sentences) if the wording is not your own. And, PS, it will be more impactful if you introduce the cited quote. For example, “As the German author Thomas Mann opined when writing about his life as an exile …” But be sure to be neutral in your choice of descriptive words – “opined” fits the bill of being neutral, but if I had instead used “lamented,” for instance, it would have to be clear from the sentence that Mann was unhappy, or I’d have to make a case for his state of mind. And, as an aside, remember that you may use an ellipsis (…) to indicate words that you’ve left out of a quote, but you must be sure that in doing so you haven’t changed the author’s meaning. 

Ideas and opinions

Perhaps the most common plagiaristic pitfall is incorporating paraphrased ideas and opinions that are not yours without citing them. As I often tell students, unless you have a PhD in a certain topic, you’re not an authority, and neither am I, and thus any opinion or idea needs to be cited. For example, to stick with Lincoln, you should avoid writing, “Lincoln does not deserve the title of the ‘Great Emancipator’ because he did not issue the Emancipation Proclamation until 1863 and, even then, he only freed slaves in the southern states still in rebellion,” without a citation because you’re restating or paraphrasing someone else’s idea or opinion. In such cases, you don’t need quotation marks, but you do need an inline citation or a footnote, and you should begin your sentence with something along the lines of, “As the historian Eric Foner has concluded …” 

Synonyms and switcheroos

There are other strategies to avoid that constitute plagiarism, even though they may seem marginal. For example, it’s not okay to use a synonym finder to replace a word or two in a sentence that you did not write – say “enterprise” for “business,” or “edict” for “proclamation” – and then drop the quotation marks and claim the sentence as your own; that’s plagiarism. Similarly, and I’ve seen this many times, it’s plagiarism to simply switch the order of the clauses in a sentence and not cite it. I should add here that I’ve often come across this when students are cribbing someone else’s homework; that, too, constitutes plagiarism. 

No source left behind

Just because you don’t quote from or cite a source in an essay, keep in mind that every source that you used needs to be in your bibliography. For instance, even though I didn’t quote from it, when researching this blog, I looked at the student handbook from St. Luke’s School, where I used to teach, and it therefore needs to be on my list of sources as my reading to it informed my understanding of plagiarism. 

One more time

Finally, remember that if you have any doubt about what is or isn’t plagiarism, cite, and also ask your teachers or professors for guidance (and maybe back it up with an email so you have a record of having done so). If it’s okay by them, you won’t be in danger of getting the dreaded “P” on your transcript.     



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