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Guidelines for Avoiding Accidental Plagiarism



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The best way to avoid accidental plagiarism is to i) take accurate notes, and ii) always remember to cite information sources, sources of inspiration, and others who may have helped, and to back up any claims made. Taking notes properly can also improve report-writing skills.

Give yourself enough time to complete a task. All too frequently, the excuse used is "I didn't have enough time to paraphrase it properly because of all the other assignments/exams/my cat was sick (delete as appropriate)". Although it is generally considered bad practice to be over-reliant on direct quotation, at least you cannot be accused of plagiarism if you put direct quotations into quotation marks and give them a full and proper citation.

Remember that the onus is on students to adopt good practices to avoid accidental plagiarism, and that the Faculty will not accept ignorance of good practice as a defence for plagiarism.

A. Taking Notes

One of the biggest causes of accidental plagiarism is not taking enough care when taking notes. Always write down the full citation or reference details of any paper read and from which notes have been taken. These will need to be included in the references section of the report (see B. Writing Reports). If in your notes, you write down a phrase or more, or unusual terminology, that is verbatim from your source, then place it in quotation marks and, if the quotation is from a book, rather than from a paper, write down the page number too. If what you have written is not verbatim compare it to the original. Does it look very similar in structure, except for a few words that have been changed? Have you accidentally changed the original author's meaning? Try paraphrasing it again until you are satisfied with the result. If you cannot paraphrase it well it, then leave it as the original quote, surrounded by quotation marks. When you use these notes for your assignment, you are likely to generalise your observations, but it is essential that you know whether your notes are the words of the original source or not.

If the paper you are making notes about contains statements or observations about work reported in another source, and you wish to make note of these observations, then the paper that you are taking notes from is the secondary source, and the paper the secondary source refers to (about which you wish to take note) is the primary source. You are always encouraged to read primary sources directly, but if, for some reason, you are unable to, then your notes should make a clear distinction between the primary and secondary source. In particular, you could write, "According to [the secondary source], [the primary source] marks the first attempt to solve this problem". It would be quite incorrect for you to simply write, "[the primary source] marks the first attempt to solve this problem", even if you read the primary source directly. This is because you share the same opinion with the secondary source, and referring to the secondary source demonstrates that you are aware of it. This can only help you, not hinder you, because it provides evidence for the claim that you want to make. In particular, if it turns out that you make the claim about the primary source as though you were not influenced by the secondary source, but you refer to the secondary source for other information, then it would be quite reasonable to assume that you are deliberately trying to hide the influence that the secondary source has had on you.

B. Writing Reports

A report is usually a logical sequence of claims. You claim that some problem exists; you claim that you know of an appropriate solution for it; you claim that there have been previous attempts made by others to solve the problem; you explain how your solution works, and you make claims about your own solution compared to the solutions of others. An unsubstantiated claim is a claim without evidence to support it. Evidence to support your claims can be provided either by referring to the same claims substantiated by others, or because you have the data and results to back up your own, original, claims.

If you rely on other sources to provide the evidence for any claims that you make, then you need to inform the reader where the original claims, and evidence supporting them, are made. You can do this by including a citation immediately following the claim in our report. The citation is a reference to an entry in the references section of the report. The citation can take a number of forms, e.g., (Axisa, 2000), [22], [Axi2000], etc. The citation style you use should be the style recommended by your Faculty or Department, or the style commonly used in your discipline, and you should use it consistently. The citation refers to an entry in your references section. Reference entries (or, simply, references) are complete bibliographic details about where the item is published. Information that must be provided includes: year of publication; authors' names; title of the publication; in which other publication it appears (if necessary); in which country and by whom the publication was published. Other information may also be necessary, depending on the nature of the publication (if it is a painting, video, an internet-based publication, etc.). To see what information should appear in a reference, check the details for the citation style you are using. Additionally, if you make the claim using the words of the other author (verbatim), then you must use quotation marks around those words in our text.

There is a difference between a references section and a bibliography. The references section contains details of all (and only) those sources that you have cited (made reference to in your report). A bibliography contains other material that you are familiar with that you recommend as further reading to your readers, but that does not contain information to support the claims that you make in your report (otherwise, cite them and add them to your references section). It is highly unlikely, then, that a bibliography will appear in an academic piece of work, and so you should avoid using one unless you are instructed otherwise.

Sometimes, you may wish to make a claim that you know you have read somewhere, but you cannot remember the source. At the time you read it, it did not seems significant or memorable, so you didn't make a note of it, but now that you are writing up your assignment you want to make reference to the information. Basically, if you cannot find the source of a claim, then you should not use the claim in your report!

If you need to include images, figures, graphs, charts, photographs, and anything else that is not strictly text in a report, and you are using an unmodified version of the original (i.e., it is identical) then the caption should include the words "From [the citation]", and cite the source as explained above. If you modify the original (including redrawing it, with or without removing or adding components), then the caption should include the words "adapted from [the citation]". In the body of your report, you should indicate what has been changed.

You should keep the amount of direction quotation from a single source to a minimum (no more than one or two sentences), and you should also limit the number of direct quotations from different sources to no more than a few overall. However, there is no limit to the number of sources you can paraphrase and reference to fully substantiate your claims. This demonstrates that not only are you good at finding relevant information, but you understand it well enough to explain it in your own words.

Finally, how do you express “common knowledge”. Do you need to cite the fact that the Sun rises in the East? That Abraham Lincoln was assassinated? That Paris is the capital of France? These facts are called “common knowledge”. They are called common knowledge because it is assumed that the overwhelming majority of people know these facts. If most people know these facts, then there is no need to cite them.

Sometimes, the difficulty is knowing whether or not some fact is well known enough to be considered common knowledge. It also depends on who is the target audience of your work. For instance, most people in the academic community nowadays know that Tim-Berners Lee invented the World Wide Web, so there is no need to refer to his seminal paper any more in anything that you write. You can simply refer to the World Wide Web, if you are describing it in relatively simplistic terms, and using your own words to do so. However, although many people might know that HTTP (the Hypertext Transfer Protocol) exists (because it appears at the beginning of most URLs) it is not necessarily the case that the overwhelming majority of people, in academia generally, know what it does. In this case, if you are describing HTTP, then even though you might know HTTP inside out, you still need to refer the reader to a primary source whenever you make a claim about it (unless the claim is your own, original observation, and you provide the data to back it up in the same report). In the hypertext community, however, this would not be necessary, because it is common knowledge in that community. Of course, in the early days of the World Wide Web, indeed, up until about the late 1990’s, it was still necessary to refer to Tim Berners-Lee’s original article about the World Wide Web whenever there was a reference to it, even in the hypertext community.

So how do we know when something becomes common knowledge? If you see a similar claim being made in several other academic papers, without a reference, then you know it is considered common knowledge. If in doubt, then give a full and proper reference for the claim. It is better to give a reference for something that is considered to be common knowledge, than to fail to give a reference for something not considered to be common knowledge. And please remember that although a fact may be considered to be common knowledge, the way it is described may not be. For example, You can say “The Sun rises in the East” because you can make that observation for yourselves every morning at dawn, and because that exact same claim is made in several places elsewhere without being placed in quotation marks and cited. However, you cannot copy text from Tim Berners-Lee’s seminal paper about the World Wide Web and paste it into your own report without using quotation marks and giving a full and proper citation for it. You must still give a full and proper citation for the words of others, unless those exact words are themselves common knowledge.


PLAGIARISM....AND HOW TO AVOID IT, a yearly seminar given to all 1st Years by Dr Christopher Staff. Further information and resources (kindly provided by Dr Staff) can be found by clicking Here.





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Last Updated: 23 February 2012

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