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Play it safe

1. Give yourself plenty of time to write and revise.

Plagiarism is often the act of a desperate student who has a deadline looming. Don’t let this happen to you. Good papers take days, weeks, or months to write. Start early, and let your ideas develop over time.

Plan to write a first draft and then revise it. If the professor allows the option to submit a first draft for critique, take advantage of that. Otherwise, plan to show a first draft to someone else (a friend, a Rhetoric Center consultant, or a classmate) a few days before the deadline anyway. This will help you determine how effectively the paper is written and give you a chance to improve it.


2. Take careful and systematic notes.

You should never write a paper directly from the secondary sources. Instead, follow these three steps:

    1. Take notes on your sources as you read.
    2. Compose an outline for your paper.  
    3. Write your paper from your notes and outline.

Whenever you take notes on a source, be sure to make a full record of the source so that you can always tell from your notes where specific information and ideas came from. If you are using bibliography software (e.g. Zotero or Endnote), you can make notes within that program, which is a good way to ensure that your notes are clearly identified with the relevant source.

If you write your notes in simple text documents, make sure that all the notes are clearly identified with the source they came from. Include the bibliographic reference for each source in your notes document. For any source from the web, always include the URL (the full web address).

If you take extensive notes from multiple sources, create a separate document with the notes from each one, giving it a logical title that identifies the source clearly. For sources that are particularly important, download them from the web and store them as separate documents. If they are not prohibitively long, print them out and read them offline. These measures will help you to annotate your sources more easily and to keep your different sources distinct in your mind as you read and take notes.

When you take notes on a source, make sure that you put the information into your own words so that when you incorporate the notes into your paper you will not be importing plagiarized material.

If you do copy language verbatim from a source, make sure that you identify it clearly as a quotation. Make it stand out clearly from the rest of your notes, either by using quotation marks (for very short passages) or by italicizing or colorizing the whole passage like the present paragraph, so that even at a quick glance you recognize it as a quotation.


3. Find your own voice.

RCA dog listening to record player with caption "his master's voice"This may be the greatest challenge of all in academic writing. Once you have done substantial reading and taken notes on your sources, you need to stand back and decide what you want to say. Even if you are presenting the results of other scholars’ research, you need to tell the story from your own point of view. This will be different from the perspectives of your secondary sources. It takes time and effort to find a comfortable writing voice that acknowledges other perspectives but does not try to mimic them. You are probably not as knowledgeable about the subject as your sources, so don’t pretend to be. If you are relating another writer’s insight, give that writer credit right up front; try to introduce your sentences with gracious acknowledgements like, “Jones makes a helpful distinction…” and “Smith illustrates the problem with a memorable example…”.

Stepping away from the computer and writing some of your draft by hand is a good way to put healthy distance between yourself and your sources, and to find your own voice and your own point of view.


4. Avoid cutting and pasting.

Unless you are copying a quotation that you intend to highlight as a quotation, as indicated above, you should not cut and paste material from a source into your notes. Cutting and pasting may seem like a handy, quick way to “grab some useful information” from an electronic source, but it is a very dangerous practice. Note-taking should involve more conscious mental work on your part; cutting and pasting is a lazy and dangerous shortcut.

Telling yourself, “I’ll just cut and paste it now to save time, and then I’ll change the words later to make them my own” is equally lazy and dangerous. Don’t succumb to the temptation. Exert the effort required to put the information into your own words. This will help you to remember it better, and it will make your notes more authentic and less likely to get you into trouble.

ABOVE ALL, NEVER CUT AND PASTE TEXT FROM A SOURCE INTO A DRAFT OF YOUR OWN PAPER.(The only exception to this rule is when you intend to insert a lengthy direct quotation into your paper, identifying the entire passage as a quotation, and providing a specific page reference for it.) In all other cases, cutting and pasting text from a source into your paper is even worse than cutting and pasting into your notes. It is the first stage of plagiarism.

Do not try to justify this first stage of plagiarism to yourself or others by saying, “It’s just a temporary move; once I’ve copied it into my own paper I will reword it and make it my own.” This is akin to taking something off the shelf in a store, slipping it into your pocket, and claiming, “When I get to the checkout I intend to take it out of my pocket and pay for it.” In both cases, the first step is already getting you too close to a serious ethical offense. Neither the police officer who arrests you for shoplifting after you forget to empty your pockets at the checkout nor the professor who prosecutes you for plagiarism when you forget to rewrite the copied passage is likely to believe the claim that you “really meant” to do the right thing but “just forgot at the last minute.” You will be held responsible for putting yourself in such a compromising position in the first place.


5. Review your entire paper and all your source citations before you submit it.

Even if you have avoided all the dangerous shortcuts described above, you may have forgotten to include a reference for a quotation somewhere, or some of your references may be incomplete.

If you consulted secondary sources early in the research process (even generic sources like Wikipedia or Sparknotes) and did not take careful notes on them, revisit those sources before submitting the paper, to make sure that you have not inadvertently borrowed an apt phrase or interpretive claim from them.

There is no substitute for careful proofreading to allow you to fix these oversights before you submit the final draft. Once you submit it, you are of course entirely responsible for all its contents, and for all its omissions.