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What is Plagiarism...and how to avoid it! can make you fail an assignment, fail an entire class, and in some instances, especially in college, it can have you removed from all your classes. Plagiarism is frowned upon everywhere, and for good reason - at its heart, plagiarism is theft. While it is not the type theft most of us are used to, it is the theft of an idea, a thought, of literature and art.

Plagiarism can be defined as using thoughts and ideas that you read somewhere, and using them in your own writing without giving the original author credit. That is, using the other author's words and passing them off as your own. Put another way, plagiarism is taking sentences from somewhere, and using them exactly how they are in your own paper, without giving the original author credit.

For example, let's say you just read a book about education, and you had to write a paper about the same topic. You felt something the author said was important and was most profound without changing any of the words - the sentence was perfect as it is. Consider if the following line was in the book you read: It is only the ignorant who despise education.

If you were to use that line in your paper without saying who the original author was, that would be plagiarism.

However, if you wanted to use the same idea, but your own words, that may not be considered plagiarism. You could change it to "The only people who hate education are those who do not understand it," and that would be your very own quote! No citations are needed, and no credit is due to the original author. This is, unfortunately, a little bit of a gray area. If instead of the original quote, you were to write "The ignorant despise education," this is very close to the original - so close that it can be considered plagiarism because you are simply paraphrasing the original. In this instance, you should give credit to the original author, even though it is not his exact quote.

By the way, Publilius Syrus (circa 100 B.C.) can be credited to the quote "It is only the ignorant who despise education.")

Note: When giving credit to original authors, use quotation marks for exact quotes, but if you have paraphrased, quotation marks are not necessary!

If you follow the general guidelines below, you should not ever have any problems with plagiarism:

  • If the original quote or sentence contains factual data that has been researched, always give credit to the original author, even if you form a completely new sentence from it. The only exception here is if you researched the facts yourself. For example: There are over 250,000 people living in Northern Nevada, and only 38% of them are currently covered by health insurance. Unless you discovered the population and the percentage of people with health insurance, no matter how the sentence ends up in your work, you need to give credit to the original author.
  • If the quote is famous, do not try to change it to make it your own. For example, do not try to change It was the best of times, it was the worst of times to something like The times were at their apex whilst they also were really bad. Just use the original and give credit.
  • The amount you need to change a line to make it your own varies from class to class, and teacher to teacher. Some people say that 3 words or more in a row from the original book to your paper is considered plagiarism. Others use various percentages of words in a sentence. We like to use this formula: If you are not going to give credit to the original author, use, at most, two of the original words in a row as your own words. And, from the original sentence to your own - do not have more than 40% of the original words.
    For example: The air was filled with the sounds of harmonious music.
    If you wanted to make that sentence your own, you would use a maximum of 4 of the original words - and of those 4, no more than 2 of them in a row would match your new sentence.
  • It's always better to be safe than sorry - if in doubt, cite your own. The original author deserves credit too!


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