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A Note on Plagiarism

To: All students taking courses in the English Department
From: Professor John Whittier-Ferguson (former Director of Undergraduate Studies)

PLEASE READ THIS NOTE IN ITS ENTIRETY. IT CONSTITUTES A WARNING, AND THE FACT OF ITS WIDE DISSEMINATION WILL MAKE ANY ASSERTIONS OF IGNORANCE LESS CONVINCING IN THE FUTURE.

Plagiarism occurs when the student submitting a paper for a course:

1. Does not properly attribute words or ideas to a source. That is, even if you're not quoting directly from a book you've read on "Macbeth"—a book that's helped you formulate ideas for your paper—you should nevertheless footnote that book at the point in the text where that other author's ideas helped shape your own essay. It is also important, if you've had a conversation with a peer or a professor who has helped you substantially in establishing your ideas on a given text, that you cite that conversation at the appropriate point in your essay. (e.g. "My ideas about Macbeth derive in part from a conversation with Professor Jones." The citation can be more specific than this, depending on the level of detailed assistance you received.)

The point that even ideas should receive citation raises some alarm among students since, of course, virtually all of our ideas might be said to grow out of conversations with others. Whether citation in a given instance is required is something that you will each have to decide on a case-by-case basis. The phrase I used in the preceding paragraph—"helped you substantially"—suggests that if pivotal / key / crucial terms or turns in your argument derive to a significant extent from a conversation with a colleague or a point made in class, you should cite that conversation or class. If you look in the "Acknowledgements" section of almost any academic book (or in the footnotes of many academic articles), you will find models for occasions when this kind of citation if required. Acknowledgements sections themselves signal that our ideas grow from our work within a community. To fail to acknowledge the context for our ideas is in part to weaken that community.

2. Quotes from another author's writing without citing that author's work. This, of course, includes failing to cite material you take from the World Wide Web, as well as copying material from library books or your peer's papers.

3. Cites, with quotation marks, portions of another author's work, but uses more of that work without quotation marks and without attribution. This instance is the most common kind of plagiarism I've been seeing. A student essay quotes, say, four or five words from a World Wide Web page (or an essay in a printed collection) on W. B. Yeats and cites them. That same essay contains other sentences that lift material directly from the Web page, but the student does not surround that quoted material with quotation marks nor does s/he give the citation at the end of his/her sentence. Note that if you're taking material from a source and rehashing it slightly, but not giving a citation for that rephrased material, you're still plagiarizing the work you're representing as your own, since the ideas, the argument derive in fact from another's writing. If you cite and surround with quotation marks only some of the words you've taken from a source, you also commit plagiarism, since you're taking words from another without fully acknowledging the extent of your borrowing.

Some have pointed out to me that, in an era of computer communities (on the internet and the World Wide Web), the whole idea of intellectual property is changing: cutting and pasting without acknowledgement may be more the norm than the exception within a computer-based, internet community. I realize, too, that one of the first things a great many students do when given an assignment is to search the Web for pertinent entries. Nor do I want to prohibit such search, since they can constitute important research.

I do want to emphasize that turning to an electronic rather than a printed source does not change the rules of citation and acknowledgement when you are submitting an essay for a course. When you turn in a paper written for someone in the English department, you are entering a research community that is still quite strict about attribution and use of material and ideas from others.

For those of you who are doing substantial work on the Web or in email discussion groups for your courses, it would be a good idea to bring up with your professor any questions you might have about intellectual property and attribution, since my general message may not address the nuances of a particular course and a specific situation.

4. Takes a paper, in whole or in part, from a site on the Web or a "library" of already-written papers.

5. Steals a paper from another student and then submits that paper as coursework.

6. Submits the same paper, or portions of the same paper, twice for two different assignments.

7. Takes the results of another's research and attempts to pass those results off as his or her own work. This includes "citing" material from sources that have been gathered by another author. You can, of course, cite materials that you have found in another published text, but you need to make it quite clear that you are availing yourself of another author's research: your citation should specify where you found the material, rather than simply giving that material's original source.

If you are caught plagiarizing, the Department's usual policy is as follows:

a. You will fail the assignment and the course.

b. Your case will be forwarded, with an explanatory letter and all pertinent materials, to the Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education and Director of the Newman Academic Advising Center, Esrold Nurse.

c. You will be placed on academic probation (which does register for a number of semesters on your transcript). If a student already on probation is caught plagiarizing, he or she is usually asked to leave the University.

Please understand that, in the intellectual community of this University, plagiarism is a form of stealing: there are few more serious breaches of intellectual community.

Having invoked community, let me apologize in advance to the community of students and faculty working in English for the tone of this letter. Plagiarism is certainly the exception rather than the norm in our community. I simply want to emphasize in this note precisely what plagiarism is and to emphasize as well that it is a very serious violation of our community.

 

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