The first thing to say on this score is : DON'T DO IT let me repeat that DON'T DO IT. This may be more difficult than you think but as long as you cite your sources and quote your quotes, fully, you should be OK.
Most schools will give out plagiarism guidelines, style guides etc. Read them, you'll get better marks and you'll avoid plagiarising by mistake.

This node is about avoiding being accused of plagiarism when you actually haven't done it. You may think this is pointless because if you haven't done it you will beat the accusation anyway. This is true but being accused of anything is not nice, at all, and is likely to distract you and cause problems between you and your accuser. My final project (dissertation) tutor (BSc) accused me of plagiarising an essay and we never really got on after that to the detriment of the project that was 40% of my degree. I would rather have avoided that.

Many of the following points amount to the same thing: consistency. Be consistent, there's nothing that arouses a professor's plagiarism sense than inconsistent work. It should also be noted that just doing one of the things listed below is unlikely to get you accused but a combination is much more suspicious. So here goes the checklist:

  • Quality Consistency: This works in both ways; if you submit a piece of work that is much better than your normal, or even much worse, this will arouse suspicion. That is not to say that you should do sub-standard work on purpose just for appearances but be aware that your professor may not be expecting greatness.

  • Style Consistency: If you normally write in broken english and then hand in a piece of beautifully written prose with all correct punctuation you are playing with fire.

  • Typesetting Consistency: If you always use Word and then suddenly switch to LaTex (then you may be learning something!) you may have problems. It should also be pointed out that a lot of the academic content on the internet was written with LaTex so when using it for the first time you will probably be subject to extra scrutiny. You should still use it though because you are likely to get better marks for style (but that's a different story).

  • Time Reasonableness: If you have left that piece of work to the last minute, don't let your tutor know. That way when you turn in a masterpiece your tutor won't be amazed and puzzled as to how you managed to do all that in 24 hours.

  • Relevance: Stay on topic! You are unlikely to be able to find an essay with the same title as the one you have been set on the internet. This means that if an essay is off topic or fails to answer the set question you're in trouble for so many different reasons. Not the least of which is that your tutor will probably assume that you did download it.

If you think you have done too many of these things then you'd better be prepared to discuss your work, sources and content in detail.
And finally, Don't let the bastards get you down and cite those sources.
Here are some real excuses offered by college students caught plagiarizing in literature courses. These are all taken either from
  • student letters to me (mostly rewritten to correct spelling and grammar) or
  • student statements during plagiarism hearings (reconstructed from my notes).
In some cases more than one excuse was offered by the same student.

My University's treatment of first offenses is rather lenient. None of these particular students was expelled or suspended. All of them chose to have hearings before the undergraduate-run Student Honor Council, and all were found "responsible" (guilty).

There is a lot left unsaid in this write-up. If you want to read about how the experience of catching plagiarists makes a professor feel, read my day-log for April 29, 2002. Professors caught plagiarizing, you know, generally have to leave the teaching profession. Who, after all, would hire such a person?

  • I just wrote what I had learned from the readings, and it turns out to be the same as what another author wrote.
    This student was found responsible for plagiarism. She was accused of having copied a published author's ideas, so she claimed she had simply come to the same conclusions the author had. The University's code counts unattributed paraphrasing as a kind of plagiarism. In this student's case, however, she didn't even paraphrase completely - she left many of the original author's words in what she handed in. This was evident in most of her papers during the semester, and the Council had no difficulty judging the case.
  • I was too busy to write the paper myself.
    This student was found responsible for plagiarism. The Council considered this excuse an admission of guilt, and wondered why he had even bothered to challenge the accusation.
  • I took notes from the Internet on my computer and some of them must have accidentally wound up in my paper.
    This student was found responsible for plagiarism; the whole paper he submitted came from Internet sources.
  • How would I be so stupid as to plagiarize from the textbook on a paper, if I knew it was wrong? The professor would obviously find out. (in other words, it was clearly unintentional and I should not be held responsible)
    This student was nevertheless found responsible for plagiarism. The University's code clearly states that copying from the textbook constitutes plagiarism.
  • I learned how to cite correctly in my English class, but I didn't realize I had to do it in other classes, too.
    This student was nevertheless found responsible for plagiarism.
  • I didn't realize the assignment was to be handed in, so I just prepared notes for my own use in discussion. Then the professor ended up collecting it, so it's not my fault if it wasn't my own work.
    This student was found responsible for plagiarism.
  • I'm a senior, so if I'm punished for this it will affect my chances to get a job.
    This student was nevertheless found responsible for plagiarism.
  • I'm on the Dean's list - I'm a good student and couldn't have plagiarized.
    This student was nevertheless found responsible for plagiarism, and the Dean's office was notified.
  • Can you please check and be sure it's really me that plagiarized? I've never heard of the book you say I copied from.
    This student was nevertheless found responsible for plagiarism. It turned out she had copied from a different book that quoted the original material.
  • I'm from overseas and I've never heard of plagiarism before.
    This student was nevertheless found responsible for plagiarism. Her entire paper was made up of plagiarized passages - 12 in all - without a single original sentence in the whole thing. She must have worked very hard to create this thing, but unfortunately it was still plagiarized. As for her excuse, the Council found that she had already taken the University's basic English courses that discuss plagiarism and how to avoid it. Furthermore, plagiarism and its consequences were discussed in detail on the syllabus and in class.
  • I did put quotation marks around passages I cited.
    This student was nevertheless found responsible for plagiarism. She put quotations marks around the poetry she was discussing, but not around the blocks of text she lifted unattributed from another author analyzing the poetry.
  • I didn't pay attention to the parts of the syllabus on plagiarism or the professor's discussion of it early in the semester; I was only interested in finding out what was due when.
    This student was nevertheless found responsible for plagiarism. The Council thought this excuse particularly damning.
  • The professor should have told the class earlier that some people had been caught plagiarizing; that way the rest of us would have known not to do it.
    This student was nevertheless found responsible for plagiarism. The Council decided that the student already knew that plagiarizing was wrong and was not entitled to extra warnings about the increased likelihood of being caught.

I thought it best to append this to the earlier write-up rather than creating a new node. This way, I can give the reader a different angle on how those excuses might sound to someone else, before it happens.

In case it wasn't obvious, they sound extremely lame to the people who have to judge these cases. Avoid accusations of plagiarism by doing your own work and making it excruciatingly clear when you are quoting anything that's not your own original work or thought.

I've received quite a bit of mail about this write-up, and would welcome more. Roninspoon, who cooled this node, first wrote to say
I find it terribly ironic that you have offered up what is essentially a list of quotations about excuses for plagiarism without citing any of the sources or offering an explanation of the source of the quotes or reasons for not attributing them.

Well, of course I'm not to going to name the students. And the events are too fresh, so I think it best not to identify my school for the time being. As stated above, there are many more details that I feel are inappropriate to divulge; University officials tell me, however, that all these cases are quite typical of what they see every year. And so I feel quite justified in presenting just what I have.

I first joined E2 near the tail-end of these experiences (December, 2001), and have intended from the first to write some things about them. Only now have I felt settled enough to do so. Again, if you are interested in the larger question of plagiarism, I have recorded some of my experiences in a day-log for April 29, 2002. The issue is far from over for me, although all the hearings from this batch of students are finished. I expect that I will become involved in Honor Council activities as part of my larger University life.

October 18, 2003. At a recent scholarly meeting, I heard from a number of my colleagues that they have stopped teaching classes in which students are expected to write anything. One problem is the rampant plagiarism, and another is that student literacy seems to be plummeting. It’s shocking to react this way, but frankly I feel just as they do. Teaching inapt and dishonest people is not worth my time, at any price.

If even the teachers are no longer willing to teach, what hope do the students have?

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