Writing Sociology Papers: How Not to Plagiarize
This is the time of the semester when lots of papers are due. Are you working on one right now or about to finally get started? What’s your plan for turning in your paper on time? Will you simply copy all or most of it from some source? Of course, that is plagiarism, and if you’re my student, at a minimum you will receive an F. (Learn more about plagiarism here.)
As I wrote in a previous post, I had my first experience of a student plagiarizing when I was a teaching assistant. That was a long time ago, before so many of us had computers. Today, the availability of information on the internet makes plagiarism a matter of copy and paste; you may not even need to type the words you’re stealing.
However, if your professor is anything like me, you’ll be sorry that you took this short-cut. I find plagiarism morally reprehensible. Now that’s not a sociological term, but as a writer who takes forever to write one paragraph for any professional reason, the idea that a student would blithely come along, copy my sweat, and paste it into his or her document and then be rewarded with a grade makes my blood boil. As an intellectual, words are all I have. They are my product so if anybody can come along and take them, I’m not left with anything. And that’s what intellectual property is about: owning the efforts of your intellectual hard work.
Most of my students make declarations like, “I hate writing!”Why do we assign you writing assignments? Simply, because we think you should know how to write. (For answer to the question, why write? click here.) Do you think that as a college graduate you should be able to express yourself in writing? Should you be able to write a report for work? How about composing an email to your boss or even your subordinates? Are those goals lofty? Or maybe you think that “everybody” can do those tasks.
Sadly, this is not true. I have had to rewrite simple letters and memos composed by assistants—who were college graduates. And I receive emails sent by professionals—in a professional context—rife with basic grammar and punctuation errors. I encounter seniors in college who can’t express simple thoughts in writing.
Literacy is our ability to read and write. These are basis skills that we expect someone with a college degree to possess; you master them with practice. Why would your professor or teacher give you an assignment to copy words? What value is there in that other than typing practice? What would you learn from that exercise? Bear in mind that the same advances in technology that make it easier for you to cheat, also make it easier for us to catch you! Turnitin is a website widely used by many university and high school teachers; it checks papers for “originality” by comparing them others in an enormous database. In many cases, I can easily detect plagiarism just by reading your essay and noticing that the content matches something else I have read.
Tips on avoiding plagiarism
- Start your writing early so that you don’t feel so rushed that you are tempted to simply copy another person’s work.
- Devise a system that makes clear to you when you have copied even a few words from a source. My method is to always put quotes into quotation marks—even in a draft. You’re welcome to use my method: Along with quotation marks around any set of words I copy, I always put a page number. If I’m using more than a couple sources, I also put the name of the author so that I know which of my sources supplied various information. I don’t put this in the correct citation format so my notes may look like this:
“Results indicate that most people prefer brown.” P6 Wilson
- This is important to do even if you think you’re going to paraphrase the words later on. Note that omitting a word or two is not paraphrasing, and neither is joining two sentences from your source. For example, based on the quote above, neither of the following are paraphrases: “Results indicate that many people prefer brown.” Or “Results indicate that people prefer brown.”
- Group projects are fairly common so if you haven’t already, it is likely that you will have one. If your name is on a group project, take responsibility and read the entire paper. In many cases, if you did so you would recognize any plagiarism because—like your professors will—you will notice that the writing is particularly good and includes a vocabulary unlike that of the average student.
It’s better to turn in a simply worded original essay that you wrote than it is to plagiarize something more elaborate that is the expression of someone else’s ideas. (Here's a recent example from The Atlantic of what can happen when we are not careful about attributing words to their writer.)