Any of these things ever happen to you?

You had to work extra hours yesterday, and then there was that surprise birthday party for your friend last night... and the paper that’s due this afternoon is still not done. You’ve got to turn in something... so maybe if you could just find something good online and ‘rewrite’ it a little...

You’ve been putting off writing this paper for weeks now... you’ve done some research online, and even talked to the prof about it, but you still can’t seem to get your arms around it. You don’t know enough about the subject to write intelligently. And now it’s due...

You don’t write well, but you got through high school and actually did pretty well. But now you’re in a class where they want a 10-page research paper with ten sources! You can’t do it, you know you can’t... and everybody’s going to find out that you don’t belong here after all. All your dreams for your future seem to hinge on this one paper...

You’ve been working hard on this paper; you’ve got tons and tons of quotes and citations. But you can’t turn in a paper that’s all quotes... maybe if you just used some of them as quotes and kind of tweaked the rest of them into your ‘own words,’ you’d be able to assemble a paper out of all this....

All of us have been there; not enough time, not enough information, not enough confidence. Each of these is a fertile opportunity for plagiarism; taking someone else’s words, ideas, or work and passing it off as your own.

Writing is hard. Research is hard. But professors give students these assignments not because they’re really interested in the final product; they want you to have experience and develop competence with the process. You learn to write by writing. You learn to research by researching. That’s what you’re here for, to learn, not just to get through. Don’t cheat yourself by trying to cheat the system.

young man looking exasperated at computer screen

Risky Business

Plagiarism not only shortcuts and cheats this process, it is against Biola policies and it's even against the law. People are sued every day over plagiarism. It is a form of stealing; taking something that is not yours, without permission. It is fraud, regardless of why you’re doing it.

And professors are no longer clueless. They know where most of the ‘download a term-paper’ sites are. There are numerous websites and software programs now available that profs can use to check a suspicious passage from your paper. Or simpler yet, they can just do a Google search, and type in a few words that don’t sound like they came from you. A few Google hits, and your ship is sunk.

The penalties can be serious. If the prof decides that it’s merely erroneous or sloppy citing, it may cost you a few points; but more serious plagiarism could get you a ‘zero’ for the assignment or even result in failing the class. Every semester, Student Development receives reports from profs about cheating (usually plagiarism), which get recorded in a file that’s kept for years after graduation. Certain programs will dismiss a student for plagiarism, and repeat offenders face suspension or even expulsion.

Keeping Clean

So what can you do? Well, if you’re intentionally plagiarizing, just going online, finding research papers or encyclopedia entries, and doing the ‘select all-copy-paste-format-print’ finger dance… well, come on. Maybe copying a report from the encyclopedia was okay when you were in second grade… Like we said at the beginning, there may be lots of ‘good’ reasons to cheat, but you may want to seriously think about what kind of person you’re becoming, and the kind of habits you’re building for yourself. If you cheat now, “because,” then it’ll be easier to cheat later, when you’re employed, when you’re a taxpayer, when you’re married…

And these 'term-papers-for-sale' folks aren't exactly Hemingways or Einsteins either. One site says "we write Logical proposition and thesis. It is like a statement, and it is one of the statement, which is just like an official essay, an argument essay or describes the essential idea of a higher education paper." Another site explains that "the purpose of research paper writing is to add up credits which can actually contribute to final grades of students. Custom Research Papers writing seems to a quite easy job but even individuals who have successfully cleared their degree after submitting their good graded Custom research papers hesitate to writer more research papers."

See? Look at all the true actual facts which you are learning now from these Custom research paper sites which you just are reading about!

Okay, seriously... maybe you’re genuinely uncertain about the rules and the limits. Here are some clues:

Understand the importance of integrity: We’ve already talked about the consequences, not only the potential discipline but how it short-changes the educational process. But this is a tricky process; all of us ‘borrow’ from each other, and our education is not ‘ex nihilo’ but is built on the work of our predecessors. An NWU website says it well:

“All of us--faculty and students together--draw from a vast pool of texts, ideas, and findings that humans have accumulated over thousands of years; we could not think to any productive end without it. Even the sudden insights that appear at first glance to arrive out of nowhere come enmeshed in other people's thinking. What we call originality is actually the innovative combining, amending, or extending of material from that pool. Hence each of us must learn how to declare intellectual debts. Proper attribution acknowledges those debts responsibly, usefully, and respectfully.”

female student looking stressed surrounded by piles of books

Understand the process: When writing an informative or persuasive paper, the point is either to summarize known information, explain the results of a study, or build an argument. You should assume that your readers don’t know you from Adam; so why should they believe what you write? You need to cite evidence; either an expert who knows more than you do, or a study on the subject, or another type of trustworthy information source. The validity of the source depends on the subject: the LA Times would be a valid source for a paper on the Dodgers’ move from Brooklyn to LA, but if you were writing a paper on quantum physics, you might want a more authoritative source than a newspaper. You include citation information, so that someone who reads your paper and wants more info can do his or her own research and find the article that you used.

Understand different uses: There are a few key methods for using information.

Common knowledge is info that your readers would already know (like George Washington being the first U.S. President); if you mention this in your paper, you don’t need a citation. But if you claim that Washington also liked video games and fast cars, you probably need some ‘backup’ to prove it to your readers.

Paraphrasing is when you use information from another source, but don’t quote it directly; you ‘repackage’ it in your own words, and give proper credit. So let’s say you come across an article about Washington, where the author claims to have access to personal letters written by Washington; you might write: Despite his stately and somewhat detached public image, Washington regularly sent letters to his friends indicating his love of fast cars and video games, particularly World of Warcraft (Johnson, 2006). This is what’s called APA formatting, where instead of footnotes you just include the author’s last name and the year the article was published. Your prof should tell you what format they want your paper to use.

Direct quotes are also using information from another source, but it’s so well stated and clearly written that instead of paraphrasing it, you want to quote the writer directly. Quoting like this requires you to use quotation marks and a specific page. You might write: As one historian said, “Washington’s frequent references to "Lambos" and "leveling up" will surely require us to re-evaluate our view of the Revolutionary War period” (Johnson, 2006, p. 348). Paraphrasing and direct quotes are often used together; you may paraphrase an author’s main idea, and add a key direct quote at the end to tie it together.

female student focused on reading, surrounded by orderly stacks of books

So there are two things going on here. First, you’re being honest about how you got the info. If you write a detailed, informative paper with no citations, your prof has two options: (a) “Gosh, Susie’s a genius! She has first-hand knowledge about quantum physics research! I should make her my TA!” or (b) “Okay, which site did Susie rip this off from?” Second, you want to provide support for your paper, so that your prof can say, “Hmmm, Susie makes some pretty strong statements here, but she’s found a lot of experts who agree with her…” Which is better than “What the heck is Susie thinking?”

Understand the material: Students often plagiarize because they don’t understand the material enough to put it in their own words. If you don’t get it well enough to state your own argument, you’re not ready to write about it. The idea is to build your own argument, then drop in a strong quote or reference or two as support. If you’re just stringing together a bunch of quotes, that’s a clue that you don’t get it… or you’re just throwing the thing together. Folks at Indiana U have a good idea; if you want to paraphrase an author’s ideas, first read their material, then close the book and see if you can write a summary in your own words. If you can’t, you need to read it some more.

Okay, now I’m totally freaked

Relax. If you’ve never really focused on proper sourcing and citations, it’s a learning process. If you’re writing a massive paper, you’re probably going to mess up (likely by sloppy note-taking or during the formatting process) and fail to properly cite a source. As we said earlier, ‘honest’ errors might cost you a few points, and are a learning experience. But keep working at it; it’s the right thing to do, and the alternative is bad for both mind and soul.

The resources cited below can help you learn how to avoid plagiarism and write a successful paper:

From Purdue University
From Winthrop University (PDF)
From Indiana University
From Northwestern University
From Widener University

If you’re struggling with a paper, talk to your prof, or check out the Writing Center, or seek out a tutor. They want you to succeed, not fail... and plagiarizing is not success.