The problem is that with the proliferation of information online, it becomes easier and easier to steal ideas and not get caught. It also becomes harder and harder for students doing creative writing to know when they're taking an idea and putting their own unique spin on it and when they're stealing someone else's idea. It's a thin line students tread, and there are many pitfalls along the way. I don't have a quick fix for you; I don't have any easy answers. What I can give you is a quick guide on how not to end up accused of plagiarism or unethical academic practices.
Plagiarism is theft of intellectual property. Or more specifically, to plagiarize is "to commit literary theft : present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source." I took this definition from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online. This is how I would cite my source:
"Plagiarize." Merriam-Webster Online. 2006. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 25 Feb 2007
The Internet is Copyrighted
The internet may seem like a free-for-all of information and ideas, but it is not. The information on the internet belongs to website authors just like book and article authors, so you have to cite it. Here's an example that might bring this point home to you. If I write a book about how to conduct library research, I might have a personal website to promote it. On my website, I might have blurbs and excerpts for my works in progress. This lets my readers know what might be coming out and what books they might want to read of mine. That information is copyrighted. I wrote it, I own it, and if someone uses my idea or takes my writing from my excerpts and uses it in their writing, that's plagiarism.
However, there is public information that you don't have to cite, such as historical dates. You can read a book or website about the Alamo and use the historical data found there, such as when the Alamo happened and who was involved. You don't have to cite that information if you use fact as a base for your term paper. What you do have to cite is if you use the book or website author's unique political theories to fuel your work. That information is owned by the author.
I'll be the first to admit there is a lot of gray area when it comes to citation, but if you're ever in doubt: cite. You can never get into hot water if you cite a source when you don't have to. You can get into some serious trouble if you don't cite when you should.
There are many ways to cite your sources. These ways are called citation styles. The style I used to cite my definition of plagiarism is the Modern Language Association (MLA) Style. Any citation style will work, but you should be consistent if you cite more than one source in your college papers. Also, many of your professors might require you to use a specific style. Many different websites exist that can assist you in citing sources, so I'll give you a few of my favorites:
- Purdue University’s OWL English Website (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl)
- Cornell University’s Guide to Bibliographic Citations (http://www.library.cornell.edu/olinuris/ref/bibcitations.html)
- Duke University’s Citation Guide (http://www.lib.duke.edu/libguide/cite/works_cited.htm)
All of these sites can give you a basic explanation of how to cite sources. If you don't have time to learn, but know you need to cite a source, you can take the quick and easy way out. I'd suggest using a citation generating program. My favorite is available free online.
- Citation Machine (http://citationmachine.net)
Citation Machine, and other programs like it, allows you to pick your preferred citation style, type in the information about the book, article, or web page you want to cite and it will generate a citation for you. None of these programs are perfect, so learning how to cite is well worth your time because many professors deduct points for incorrect citations. Knowing when a citation is incorrect and how to fix it can be a valuable tool during your tenure at the university.
All's Fair in Love and Literature
You can use a small percentage of another person's work as long as you cite it, and it's not a legal issue. A few sentences from a book or website aren't a problem. When it becomes a legal issue is when you use a large percentage, or even all, of someone's book or article. This violates fair use. It is not that you cannot use some or all of an author's work, but if you use more than a sentence or two, you have to contact the author and obtain their permission. Please note that I'm a librarian and not a lawyer, so consult an expert on fair use and copyright if you have any legal questions. This is a simple explanation of what can become a complicated problem. The bottom line is if you use a lot of someone else's work, just a citation isn't enough. So, either limit your use of other writers' work, or be prepared to contact the author and possibly a lawyer.
And yes, mentioning lawyers is a scare tactic on my part. Plagiarism and fair use are serious legal issues. I would hate to see any student get in trouble over what may have been a mistake made out of ignorance. Be aware of where you get your information, and know when and how to cite a source if you need to.
The Biggest Gray Area
The big gray area I'm talking about here is your brain. So, I've talked about citation and fair use of other people's work, but what about your own work? I'm certain we've all done this...you have a class that asks for a term paper, and you wrote a similar paper to what is being required for another class the previous semester. It's your work, you own it, so it's not plagiarism, right?
It's not plagiarism.
But what it is is unethical. Plagiarism is obviously unethical, but so is recycling your own work. Think about it this way, what if a student wrote an amazing paper in their freshman year. They got an A. Then, they managed to make a few tweaks to that paper and turn it in every single semester until they graduated, always getting A's. Is that fair to other students who worked hard and wrote original work for every class? No, it's not. Also, is it fair to the student who was supposed to be reflecting on what he had learned in each class for those final papers? Did he actually get the same level of college education as everyone else? Or did he cheat himself in the end?
It may sound idealistic, but codes of ethics are. They are descriptions of ideal standards of behavior. However, if your motivation needs to be a crime and punishment discussion, imagine what would happen to that same student if a professor uncovered his use of the same paper over and over again. What if every professor he'd ever turned that paper in to decided to re-evaluate the grade he'd received and give him an automatic F for cheating? What if he had to go before a board of inquiry for unethical academic behavior and was expelled from the university? Would it be worth it then to get the easy A? Probably not. But if you reuse a paper, you're not likely to get caught. The scenario I described is within the realm of possibility, but not by much. So, in the end, it's up to individual students to hold themselves to a higher ethical standard.
And just to be fair, some of what I wrote here today I pulled from an article I wrote for a monthly newsletter for a local writer's association after they had a few problems with plagiarizing from the internet (so is it ethical for me to use?). It's not just college students who run into these kinds of problems, it's an issue that everyone deals with.