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Avoiding plagiarism, self-plagiarism, and other questionable writing practices: A guide to ethical writing

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"...taking over the ideas, methods, or written words of another, without acknowledgment and with the intention that they be taken as the work of the deceiver." American Association of University Professors (September/October, 1989).

As the above quotation states, plagiarism has been traditionally defined as the taking of words, images, ideas, etc. from an author and presenting them as oneís own. It is often associated with phrases, such as kidnapping of words, kidnapping of ideas, fraud, and literary theft. Plagiarism can manifest itself in a variety of ways and it is not just confined to student papers or published articles or books. For example, consider a scientist who makes a presentation at a conference and discusses at length an idea or concept that had already been proposed by someone else and that is not considered common knowledge. During his presentation, he fails to fully acknowledge the specific source of the idea and, consequently, misleads the audience into thinking that he was the originator of that idea. This, too, may constitute a case of plagiarism. Consider the following real-life examples of plagiarism and the consequences of the offenderís actions:

  • A historian resigns from the Pulitzer board after allegations that she had appropriated text from other sources in one of her books.
  • A biochemist resigns from a prestigious clinic after accusations that a book he wrote contained appropriated portions of text from a National Academy of Sciences report.
  • A famous musician is found guilty of unconscious plagiarism by including elements of another musical groupís previously recorded song in one of his new songs that then becomes a hit. The musician is forced to pay compensation for the infraction.
  • A college president is forced to resign after allegations that he failed to attribute the source of material that was part of a college convocation speech.
  • A member of Congress running for his partyís nomination withdraws from the presidential race after allegations of plagiarism in one of his speeches.
  • A psychologist has his doctoral degree rescinded after the university finds that portions of his doctoral dissertation had been plagiarized.
    In sum, plagiarism can be a very serious form of ethical misconduct. For this reason, the concept of plagiarism is universally addressed in all scholarly, artistic, and scientific disciplines. In the humanities and the sciences, for example, there are a plethora of writing guides for students and professionals whose purpose, in part, is to provide guidance to authors on discipline-specific procedures for acknowledging the contributions of others. Curiously, when it comes to the topic of plagiarism, many professional writing guides appear to assume that the user is already familiar with the concept. In fact, while instruction on attribution, a key concept in avoiding plagiarism, is almost always provided, some of the most widely used writing guides do not appear to offer specific sections on plagiarism. Moreover, those that provide coverage often fail to go beyond the most basic generalities about this type of transgression.

    Although plagiarism can take many forms there are two major types in scholarly writing: plagiarism of ideas and plagiarism of text.

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