Using (and Misusing) Sources

By Susan Snively

What is plagiarism?

Simply put, plagiarism is fraud: a plagiarist passes off another’s work as his or her own, whether that work takes the form of another’s words, ideas, evidence, proof, or structure of argument. The most common forms of plagiarism are:

  • using all or part of another person’s writing without proper attribution.
  • downloading unattributed material from the internet into a paper.
  • acquiring a paper from an on-line “Academic Research Service,” a paper mill, or a “fraternity file” of recycled papers.
  • having another person write the paper for you.
  • turning in all or part of the same paper to more than one course without prior permission from the professor.

Unintentional Plagiarism

Failure to document sources may result from students’ ignorance of the proper ways to cite, or belief that citation is not necessary. Some professors will not ask for formal citations for short papers based entirely on course material. They may accept parenthetical citation of quoted passages and/or bibliographical references at the end of the paper. Nevertheless, students must be careful in using the work of others. This means taking good notes in class and using quotation marks around others’ words, whether they come from written sources or comments in discussion.Unintentional plagiarism is still treated as plagiarism, so students must be careful in making any reference to work that is not their own. Here is an example of responsible informal citation in a short paper:

Oliver Sacks’s patient Jimmie, “the Lost Mariner,” who has lost his short-term memory due to damage to his hippocampus from alcohol, seems very different from A.R. Luria’s remarkable patient “S.”, who can’t seem to forget anything, even over a long period of time. Yet both men, as Sacks says, seem “disoriented and lost in time.” (Sacks, 27.) They lack what Luria calls the capacity to connect the particular and the general (Bruner, introduction to Luria, xxii.) Thus, Jimmie and “S” seem to be missing parts of themselves. As Prof. Czap said in class (9/16), they seem in a fundamental way “de-souled” because they have no sure way to ground themselves in time. If one is only “at home,” in the past, as Sacks says, then in fact one has no home.

Several ideas alluded to above may be fertile material for later cultivation in a long paper. The student has given herself a good start by writing as if she is already participating in a conversation based on her reading and good class notes.

Isn’t the Internet Free?

The availability of information on the internet has made plagiarism both easier and more likely, perhaps because of the misconception that such information “belongs” to everyone who uses it. But every piece of data on the internet was placed there by someone; it did not travel there by itself. The key to this puzzle of ownership is: “If you didn’t write it, you have to cite it,” and provide the internet address for others to follow. Although web sites may evaporate, the writer still has to act in good faith, and provide a reference just as she would with a library book.

Double Dipping, Another Form of Academic Dishonesty

Suppose you are reading Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life in a psychology course and an English course. Both professors assign final papers asking you to draw upon selected course material. For the psychology course, you are writing a critique of Freud’s book; for the English course, you are applying Freud’s insights to some characters in Henry James’s novels. How simple it would be—and how seemingly logical—to take the English paper, trim out a few of the references to James (leaving in one or two to make it look sophisticated), and turn it in to the psych professor.

Why is that act considered academic dishonesty? What’s wrong with it? Aren’t students at Amherst expected to be making all sorts of intellectual connections among their courses, proving the value of their liberal arts experience?

Of course there is nothing wrong with seeking connections among the readings in your courses, But in writing and turning in the same paper (even slightly edited) to two professors, you are misrepresenting yourself: you have done one piece of work in place of two pieces of work. And you have assumed that your professors are too preoccupied or unengaged to check on you. Just as professors can find internet plagiarism with a few clicks of the mouse, they are—amazingly—good at talking to each other, sometimes about students they are both teaching. Many an act of academic mischief has been uncovered over the chef’s daily special at lunch.

But suppose you find that you really do wish to write about Freud in both your final papers for the psychology and English courses. The best strategy, and the most honest, is to ask your professors in advance. Show both professors a draft of the paper and ask how you can focus it to meet the terms of each assignment. They will most likely give you permission to do what you want, and they may also help you frame your presentations.