On Plagiarism

Steven M. Specht and Jan Pedersen
Psychology Department
Lebanon Valley College

Plagiarism occurs when a writer uses someone else's words or ideas without proper acknowledgement. Plagiarism can be considered a combination of cheating, stealing and lying and is a serious violation in academics. In some institutions, plagiarism can be punishable by expulsion from a class or the institution. Statistically, "unintentional plagiarism" is virtually impossible. "Unintentional plagiarism" arises when an individual is unaware of what constitutes plagiarism. Everyone should know that copying someone else's work directly is plagiarism. In addition to directly copying someone else's writing, however, many other instances of unacknowledged use of someone else's work can be considered plagiarism.

The following examples should make clear the differences between honest and dishonest use of a source:

Original: ". . . what we dream is either manifestly recognizable as psychically significant, or it is distorted and cannot be judged till the dream has been interpreted, after which it will once more be found to be significant. Dreams are never concerned with trivialities; we do not allow our sleep to be disturbed by trifles. The apparently innocent dreams turn out to be quite the reverse when we take the trouble to analyze them. They are, if I may say so, wolves in sheep's clothing" (Freud, 1965, pp. 215-216).

Freud, S. (1965). The interpretation of dreams. New York: Avon Books.

Version A: According to Freud (1965), our dreams are either recognizably significant right away or found to be so once they have been interpreted. Dreams must be significant--otherwise we would not allow our sleep to be distrubed. What appears to be innocent often turns out to be quite the opposite, much like wolves in sheep's clothing.

Version A is an example of plagiarism: Although the author of Version A uses a citation
to indicate that the ideas in this passage belong to Freud, the writing follows too closely Freud's literary style and choice of words to be a true paraphrase. Therefore, lack of quotations implies that the writer is passing off writing that is not her or his own.

Version B: According to Freud (1965), dreams, no matter how "innocent" on the surface, are inevitably found, once interpreted, to contain important psychological content (p. 216).

Version B is not an example of plagiarism: The author of Version B not only acknowledges that the ideas are not his or her own, but also has summarized Freud's writing in his or her own style and has placed the one word taken directly from Freud within quotation marks and noted the pages from which it was taken.

To avoid plagiarism, the following principles must be scrupulously observed:

  1. Place anything you copy exactly from another writer--whole sentences, phrases, or even single distinctive or unusual words--within quotation marks and identify its source. In terms of APA format, anything that is quoted directly must include quotation marks AND a proper citation to author, year and page number from which the quotation was taken.


  2. Indicate the source of any idea or information that you take from another writer that is not common knowledge. You should indicate the source of information even when you restate the idea or information in your own words and don't use quotation marks. When in doubt whether to cite the source of information you use, it is wise to include the citation. It is better to weary the reader with excessive citations than to run the risk of being academically dishonest (see LVC handbook, pp. 17-18). And remember... you can always ask the professor.

Professors are generally interested in your writing and ability to interpret and integrate your ideas with the work of others. In general, you should avoid extensive use of quotations from the work of others. Use direct quotations only for an idea which is particularly well expressed or which is controversial enough that you want your readers to know you are stating it exactly without any misinterpretation on your part. Most of the material you take from other sources should be restated in your own words. You must be certain that you actually do restate ideas in your own words. Retaining the sentence structure of the original source, substituting some synonyms, and/or deleting some phrase is NOT paraphrasing; it IS plagiarism.

One of the best ways to avoid plagiarism is to use care when taking notes. Place quotation marks around all material you copy verbatim. Check to make certain you have copied accurately and write down th page number of the source next to the quotation. Read carefully material you wish to paraphrase. Then close the book and write a summary of the material. You may wish to check the accuracy of your summary, but do not revise it by then using the author's words. By not looking at the source while you paraphrase it, you avoid the temptation of retaining too much of its sentence structure and vocabulary. If an author uses a particularly apt phrase, put that in your summary with quotation marks beside it.

Sample summary note:

Dreams--The Issue of Significance/Meaning

The significance of dreams should not be based on surface accessibility--on their manifest content. No dreams are "innocent". Interestingly, dreams that at first appear free of noteworthy meaning turn out to be just the opposite once they are carefully anlalyzed/interpreted. Freud quite aptly compares such dreams to "wolves in sheep's clothing" (p. 216).

Freud, Interpretation of dreams, pp. 215-216.

A final word: Plagiarism is most likely to result when your paper emphasizes the ideas of others rather than your own. Your research papers should never consist of a loosely-connected string of undigested quotations and ideas of other authors. Instead, you must interpret research material, integrate it with your own ideas, and develop your own controlling idea and organizational structure. You should refer to other sources, using them to support and develop your own ideas, rather than rely on them as a substitute for your own thoughts and analyses. In this way, you can produce intellectually solid papers and at the same time avoiding plagiarizing.