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Plagiarism: A Basic Idea

Written by: Stuti Bansal - Student, Symbiosis Law School, Pune, IV th year, B.B.A.LL.B.
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"Thou shalt not steal, but paraphrasing is OK" - Exodus 20:15, King James Bible, Teacher's Edition

In this information age where copying and cheating is fast becoming the easy way for many students and others across the world, the term plagiarism, its relevance, consequences, and other things related thereto become important to be defined. Plagiarism is now considered to be an academic sin by Universities all across the world.

The word ‘plagiarism’ comes from the Latin word ‘plagiare’ which means "to kidnap".

The boundary between plagiarism and research is often unclear. Learning to recognize the various forms of plagiarism, especially the more ambiguous ones, is an important step towards effective prevention. Many people think of plagiarism as copying another's work, or borrowing someone else's original ideas.

Meaning of Plagiarism: According to the Oxford Dictionary, Plagiarism can be defined as taking someone else’s work and pretending it to be your own work. It is in fact more than simply copying someone else’s work. When students submit work purporting to be their own, but which in any way borrows ideas, organization, wording or anything else from another source without appropriate acknowledgment of the fact, the students are guilty of plagiarism. It even includes copying from unpublished works. Plagiarism is usually discovered by scholars and researchers during the continuance of their research work.

Instances of plagiarism in today’s world of competition are ever increasing. One such case is when the popular historian Stephen Ambrose was accused of plagiarism on the basis of several passages from his books . The story made national news, and articles on Ambrose's use of sources and its implications for college students still continue to appear. A subsequent story involved Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin's copying from sources . Many such other cases have been cropping up in the recent past.

Types of Plagiarism: There can be different types of plagiarism on the basis of the degree to which the copying has been done. Firstly, there is "The Ghost Writer" in which the writer turns in another's work, word-for-word, as his or her own. This, in other words, is the verbatim copy of another person’s work. Secondly, there is "The Photocopy" in which the writer copies significant portions of text straight from a single source, without doing any alteration. Thirdly there is "The Potluck Paper" in which the writer tries to disguise plagiarism by copying from several different sources, altering a few sentences and paragraphs here and there to make them fit together while retaining most of the original phrasing. Another type of plagiarism is "The Self-Stealer" where the writer "borrows" generously from his or her previous works, thus violating policies concerning the expectation of originality adopted by most of the academic institutions. The common thread among all of the above types is that in all of the above the source of the original work is not cited.

Following are some types where although the sources are cited, yet they are said to have been plagiarized works. One of the most common of these is "The Forgotten Footnote". In this the writer mentions an author's name for a source, but neglects to include specific information on the location of the material referenced. This often masks other forms of plagiarism by obscuring source locations. Yet another type of these is "The Resourceful Citer". This is where the line between compiling and plagiarizing seems to be too thin to be noticed. The writer here properly cites all sources, paraphrasing and using quotations appropriately. But the catch is that the paper contains almost no original work. It is sometimes difficult to spot this form of plagiarism because it looks like any other well-researched document. And lastly, there is "The Misinformer". Here the writer provides inaccurate information regarding the sources, making it impossible for anyone interested in finding them at all.

Sometimes there are cases where even though the author has never read an article or the piece but has committed plagiarism unknowingly. One may choose to write on the same topic as the other but the odds are that he may even convey the same ideas and express them similarly in his paper also. If this does happen, it is highly unlikely that one will be accused of plagiarism. But one has to be definitely careful of accidental plagiarisms where one could have read a piece and forgotten that he had actually read it somewhere. This is because if one’s ideas turn out to have been influenced by a source that you read but failed to cite for any reason, you could be guilty of plagiarism.

Although there can be many such cases resulting into plagiarism, most of them cannot be proved to be illegal. This is because there lays a vast gap between plagiarism and copyright protection (which is protected under the law) though the former can be said to be a type of copyright infringement also. The copyright Act makes a clear distinction between an ‘expression’ and an ‘idea’. While an expression is that which is protected by the law against copying, idea does not avail of any such cover. Here I would also like to bring out the difference between plagiarism and paraphrasing. It is extremely important to note that changing a few words from an original source does NOT qualify as paraphrasing. This is plagiarizing. A paraphrase must make significant changes in the style and voice of the original while retaining the essential ideas. Plagiarism can be said to be a combination of stealing and lying. It should be remembered that paraphrasing is also type of plagiarism. Paraphrasing when the original statement is still identifiable and has no acknowledgement, is plagiarism.

It is difficult to give accurate information on who plagiarizes. According to Walker , up to 90% of all students plagiarize in some universities. And there are several tools available which help in detecting plagiarism in a work. There is the JISC Plagiarism Advisory Service which is an online service and is available absolutely free of cost. If the source is suspected to be electronic, an advanced search on Google may prove useful for finding exact matches to a string of text.
Prevention of Plagiarism: So how does one prevent plagiarism? Steps to do this have to be taken at two levels. One is the student himself who is writing his work and the other is the institution or the guide. At a student’s level, it is the duty and moral obligation of the student writing that he does not copy from other sources. For this the first step will be to consult the instructor for guidelines and clarifications about the topic. Next comes the planning of the paper which goes a long way towards preventing plagiarism. A proper outline helps in drawing a line between one’s own ideas and others’ ideas. Also helpful is the proper taking of notes which helps in prevention of any misquotations and wrong citations.

The UNBC Learning Skills Centre has laid down a ten step guideline of preventing plagiarism by a student. Its basic highlights include, along with those given above that, the student should try writing a short version of his paper in thirty minutes to have his own ideas clear in his mind. When copying from any source, the author should clearly and simultaneously make a list of the bibliography. The major responsibility is that of the institutions for it is on them to lay down the policies and rules for the students and others. Talking of the institution’s role in preventing plagiarism, it is of great importance that the institution, which can either be a college, university or even a funding agency, needs to lay down the rules to be followed by all. These should include means of preventing plagiarism. Such rules should be explained in a clear manner to all the students writing papers, dissertations, etc. It is the responsibility of the institution to educate the students about plagiarism. The students should be taught the correct and accepted way of citing sources and benefits thereof. Next, and lastly, all institutions should lay down penalties for this crime which shall dissuade anybody from committing such acts.

Penalties: The penalties for plagiarism can be surprisingly severe, ranging from failure of classes and expulsion from academic institutions to heavy fines and jail time. Such policies should be quoted in the syllabus itself. Carroll , in her book has dealt with this issue in a very organized manner.

She has laid down the following four factors about why students commit plagiarism:
• the extent of the academic misconduct
• the students intention or motivation (taking into account the stage of the student in their programme, the number of previous offences and the learning background of the student)
• the conventions in the academic field or discipline (particularly important when working across disciplines)
• the effect of the intended penalty upon the students progression or potential award (and, as noted above, on future career)
The punishments for this offence vary from a minimum ‘F’ grade in the exam to expulsion from the college in case of Universities. In case of offices and research institutions, there are also the lesser penalties of demotion, salary reduction, and prohibitions on serving as a principal investigator. Penalties, as such, vary from institution to institution.

There can be several ways and resources to prevent plagiarism, but the there is need to be all time alert and feel it to be one’s moral responsibility to avoid committing such acts. What is also required is a sure shot formula of preventing such practices which not only harm the author’s own reputation but also affect the original author’s work’s credibility and value. One of the points to be considered, however, is that plagiarism can , unlike any other crime, hardly cause any real or physical harm. So then, should proper laws and manuscripts be prepared for punishing this act? Should the penalties and punishments inflicted on the wrong- doers be so harsh so as to spoil their future? Are the free services available online and other offers also not to be blamed? As of now, the only answer to all these questions is ‘Time’.

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