Prof. McMahand


English Composition


Recognizing and Avoiding Plagiarism


Head Note


Plagiarism is a serious sin in academia, and plagiarists occupy Dante’s ninth circle of hell (at least they would if I had anything to do with it).  At the heart of this offense are theft, deceit, and authorial homicide—all the biggies.  Let’s call it “plagiarcide.”  To enact textual theft, plagiarists “kill off” the real author only to take his or her place.  Hyperbole aside, plagiarism presents the language, concepts, and thoughts of other writers as one’s own inventions: plagiarists steal the intellectual property of other people, taking credit for their work.  In cases where the act of plagiarism is not intentional, a sin of omission, writers fail to credit or acknowledge the work of others by not including with any use of paraphrase or quotation the proper citation and documentation.  In cases where the sin is deliberate, writers take sentences, paragraphs, or entire essays off the Internet, from fraternity and sorority files—the list goes on.  On both an academic and professional level, the consequences for plagiarism can be severe and career-altering.  To avoid this kind of theft and dishonesty, you must follow certain guidelines in writing and editing your papers.


1.  When deciding whether to quote or cite a text, ask yourself if it is common knowledge (the kind of information you would find anywhere—in an encyclopedia, dictionary, a general reference book, a magazine or newspaper report, or on Wikipedia.  Common knowledge includes but is not limited to hard facts, dates, and historical events like battles, treaty signings, international conferences, artistic and athletic accomplishments, the titles of ships, books, and journals, and special phenomena like the moon landing or the 1963 March on Washington.  If something is not common knowledge, then directly quote or paraphrase it then cite and document it.


2.  You don’t have to cite your own ideas (unless you have previously published them).  You don’t have to cite your opinions, empirical or personal observations, polls, surveys, and results.  You do have to cite statistics, pictures, interviews, concepts, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and special, or coined, words that come from an outside source.  Let’s expand that last point into an example:  pretend you are writing a paper about women’s perspective on the environment and you find that everybody in the field of study uses the term ecofeminism.  In this case, you don’t have to cite everybody who uses this term.  However, if you happen upon an author who makes a point of introducing a new term—ecowomanism—that only she claims to be using, then you should cite that word as that writer’s own invention.  


3.  In this class we use the MLA citation/documentation method.  Generally, you want to frame your direct quote with an introductory phrase or lead-in, give the quote, then a parenthetical citation.  Paraphrases also merit citation.  Here are three examples: 1) As Stevens shows, “All the test results are faulty” (11).  2) The report demonstrates how the experiments contain serious errors of methodology and that “[a]ll the test results are faulty” (Stevens 11).  3) Stevens makes a credible case that the test results are unreliable (11).


4.  A Writer’s Resource has effective and insightful tips on avoiding unintentional and deliberate plagiarism.  Look at tab 23b (pages 244-245 in the third edition) for a more exhaustive checklist of dos and don’ts. 


5.  The rule of thumb is that if you are using more than three thematic words in a row from a source text that you are plagiarizing.  When you paraphrase, you often (though not always) use the writer’s name in connection with his or her thoughts.  Also, you use synonyms to replace the author’s words, and you rearrange the sentence structure.  If you can’t find a good synonym or can’t rearrange the sentence, you should use a direct quote.  To repeat, paraphrases warrant citation and documentation—even if you put the author’s ideas into your own words, you are still using his or her ideas.



Procedure Part I


The passage below appears in Maxine Hong Kingston’s essay “No Name Woman” which addresses the difficulty many Chinese immigrants face in forming a new, hybrid identity that honors both their Chinese heritage and their new homeland in the United States.  In the passage, naming and national origins, two points of identification, become rocky negotiations for the immigrant.  Read the excerpt and determine which one of the three paraphrases constitutes plagiarism.  For those two passages that are plagiarized, correct them in two ways—with direct quotes and by using your own words.  For the paraphrase that is not plagiarized, explain in a sentence or two why the rewrite is acceptable.    


from “No Name Woman” by Maxine Hong Kingston

The emigrants confused the gods by diverting their curses, misleading them with crooked streets and false names. They must try to confuse their offspring as well, who, I suppose, threaten them in similar ways--always trying to get things straight, always trying to name the unspeakable. The Chinese I know hide their names; sojourners take new names when their lives change and guard their real names with silence.

Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese? What is Chinese tradition and what is the movies?   (18).


Paraphrase One (of the first paragraph)

Linking ancient Chinese deities with forgotten customs and traditions, Kingston describes the struggles emigrants face in adjusting to their new life in America.  These emigrants often adopt false names and guard their real names with silence (18).



Paraphrase Two (of sentences in the first paragraph)

According to Kingston, Chinese immigrants often assimilate into American culture by disguising their birth names and using names like those popular in America (18). 


Paraphrase Three (of the second paragraph)

Kingston poses a difficult question for Chinese Americans, especially those who try to preserve their cultural uniqueness.  She asks, how is culture marked in general terms, and how does a person know what is generally Chinese from what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, and so on? 


Procedure Part II


Read the following passage, an excerpt of Eudora Welty’s memoir One Writer’s Beginnings, and provide a three to four sentence paraphrase that reproduces in your own words the passage’s content and tone.  Your paraphrase should contain one or two direct quotes with proper citation, and you should draw the rest from your own word choice.  The passage appears on page 24 of the memoir, where, ever the master of precision and atmosphere, Welty etches in stone a portrait of her first grade teacher and of her school.  The place is early twentieth century Jackson, Mississippi.  Type and format your work.


from One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty

Miss Duling dressed as plainly as a Pilgrim on a Thanksgiving poster we made in the schoolroom, in a longish black-and-white checked gingham dress, a bright thick wool sweater the red of a railroad lantern--she'd knitted it herself--black stockings and her narrow elegant feet in black hightop shoes with heels you could hear coming, rhythmical as a parade drum down the hall. Her silky black curly hair was drawn back out of curl, fastened by high combs, and knotted behind. She carried her spectacles on a gold chain hung around her neck. Her gaze was in general sweeping, then suddenly at the point of concentration upon you. With a swing of her bell that took her whole right arm and shoulder, she rang it, militant and impartial, from the head of the front steps of Davis School when it was time for us all to line up, girls on one side, boys on the other. We were to march past her into the school building, while the fourth-grader she nabbed played time on the piano, mostly to a tune we could have skipped to, but we didn't skip into Davis School.

    Eudora Welty (1909-2001)