Avoiding Plagiarism

by Susan Kaufman

What is all the buzz about plagiarism today and why does it really matter? Consider the following:

  • Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Pulitzer winning historian for her book, No Ordinary Time (1995), full professor at Harvard, commentator on celebrated news hours and judge for the Pulitzer competition recently acknowledged lifting several passages from other authors for her 1987 best seller The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. She was forced to resign from these positions. In addition, several universities withdrew their initiations for speaking engagements.
  • David Kelly, weapons inspector and advisor to the British Ministry of Defense believed the weapons inspection report in Iraq was inaccurate and soon after Tony Blair authorized involvement in the war on Iraq, Kelly committed suicide.
  • Joe Biden, a democratic presidential hopeful, was accused of plagiarism regarding certain passages in speeches and interviews he borrowed from British politician Neil Kinnock. He withdrew is candidacy.
  • Eugene Tobin, the President of Hamilton College, resigned after admitting to improperly attributing his sources in a speech he gave to incoming freshmen.
  • The president of Southwest Texas State University resigned when his dissertation was found to be plagiarized. He lost not only his job but his doctorate was well.

Today, more than ever, it is very easy to commit plagiarism. We cut and paste the information we find online without regard to where it comes from and who wrote it. Why should we, if it is on the net, it must be ok to use: it is just information; it is free information… not exactly.

Plagiarism is the unacknowledged use of somebody else’s words, ideas, images, sounds or creative expression. It includes having a friend write a paper for you, submitting the same paper for more than one class and downloading or buying a term paper from the web. Another’s work includes laboratory data, computer programs, physical models, chemical samples, photographs, tables and graphs. In other words, whatever isn’t your idea or work is plagiarism, except for one thing: common knowledge. You do not have to cite common knowledge.

What is common knowledge? Common knowledge is an idea(s) taken for granted by people knowledgeable about the topic. Facts easily found in standard reference books are considered common knowledge. In some disciplines, information covered in class lectures do not need acknowledgement. Some interpretive ideas also are so well accepted that they don’t need referencing, such as the idea that Picasso is a distinguished modernist painter or that smoking is harmful to health.

If you would like to learn more about plagiarism, a workshop is being offered by the library. You will learn misconceptions about plagiarism as well as strategies that can be used to keep yourself from getting into very hot water….like expulsion from the university….ouch.

For detailed information about this and other library workshops, see http://sunysb.edu/~library/services/instruction or call 632-7110 for registration.

Posted in Library Instruction


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