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Plagiarism and Avoiding It

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: September 21, 1999
E-Mail Curran or Takata.

Plagiarism: A Case of Not Avoiding It

Review Essay by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Part of the Writing Series
Copyright: June 1999. "Fair Use" encouraged.

We generally describe plagiarism as easy to recognize, easy to avoid: simply don't take other people's words and use them as your own; don't take other people's ideas and parade them as your own. But then comes the reality of measurement, and, as generally happens with measurement, we discover that few things are as simple as a categorical "is plagiarism"/"is not plagiarism."

Everyone remembers being taught in school that you must put quotes around the words of others. But what if you change just a few words? Now it's not a quote. It's paraphrased. Is that OK? No, not really. You should still give credit for that statement to its original author, even though quotes are no longer appropriate. Is it plagiarism to take credit for the rephrased statement itself? Yes! And also be aware that many teachers will not accept essays that consist mostly of paraphrased statements.

Sound simple? It's not. Where do you draw the line between paraphrasing and simply summarizing from "the same source?" A recent case reported in the New York Times lays charges of plagiarism against a frequently published and award-winning writer: "Repeat Charges of Plagiarism Taint a Prolific Biographer," by Ralph Blumenthal and Sarah Lyall, NY Times, Tuesday, September 21, 1999, p. A-22) The journalists report the reaction of an assistant professor of history to the biographer's latest work: the story of John Paul Jones. The professor, reviewing the book for the Times Book Review, "said he became suspicious when he noticed, uncredited in the Mackay book, an observation he considered peculiar to the well-traveled [Samuel Eliot] Morison, the fact that Jones, in his sailings from Cape Breton to the Black Sea, seemed oddly indifferent to nature's glories."

Compare the reviewers phraseology to that of each of the books:

From Morison's John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography:

"During his career, he visited some of the most beautiful parts of the world -- Cape Breton, the Windward Islands, Jamaica, Gallicia, Brittany, the Hebrides, the Baltic and the Black Sea; yet not once in his voluminous correspondence does he indicate any appreciation of them; and in only one letter, about the great gale of October 1780, does he mention the majesty of the sea." (Quoted at p. A22 of the NY Times article.)

From James Mackay's just coming out I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight: A life of John Paul Jones.

"In the course of his career he visited some of the most beautiful parts of the world .. the Caribbean Islands, Nova Scotia, Galicia, the Baltic and the Black Sea as well as the eastern seaborad of America and the coasts of Britain -- yet nowhere in his vast correspondence does he betray any appreciation of them. In only one letter, written in October 1780 in the aftermath of a great storm, does he allude to the majesty of the sea." (Quoted at p. A22 of the NY Times article.)

Notice the similarity of the language and the focus of the two book passages. Then notice how easily Mr. Bolster the history professor managed to rephrase the idea in very different words. Recall that it is easier to rephrase a passage when you have put the original out of sight for a while and done some other work. When you come back to rephrase the passage you will find that you will rarely choose the author's original words. It is also easier to rephrase a pasage when you have thoroughly considered it and linked it to other experiences in your apperceptive mass. Then words relating to your own experiences will more likely come to mind.

The NYTimes article also mentions MacKay's enormous productivity, sometimes two books per year. Since he has been an award-winning author perhaps this race into print helps to explain why he may have simply not taken the time to make the material his own. In one case he claimed that he and the author he was said to have plagiarized were relying on the same source.

Mackay wrote a letter of apology to Robert V. Bruce, whose 1973 Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude was allegedly "copied wholesale" in Mackay's biography of Bell. In that letter of apology Mackay is reported to have said "I had absolutely no idea that anything I had done could be construed as plagiarism." Perhaps a convenient excuse, but perhaps some genuine confusion. Mackay had a lot at stake. Hard to imagine that he has continued skirting this slippery slope in book after book. Hard to imagine that a student would knowingly copy without attributing the work. But once committed, once accused, perhaps the lines do become blurred. How close to the line can you walk safely, without crossing over?

The NY Times article is well worth reading. Here is an example in which real people with real careers at stake are bickering over just where the line is. And here are examples which may help to clarify the issue for you.