If you look at the syllabi for many of your classes, you’ll probably see something like this:
Plagiarism is a serious ethical breach that affects your integrity as a scholar and a member of society. If you engage in an act of plagiarism, you will fail the assignment and may fail the course.
This essentially says: “Plagiarism is wrong—don’t do it.” But even understanding that you shouldn’t plagiarize doesn’t help you understand how to avoid it. In actuality, most forms of plagiarism are a symptom of a much bigger problem: the difficulty of properly using and citing source material. Relatively few cases of plagiarism are deliberate transgressions, like a student turning in a paper written by someone else. More often it is something murkier. In a cultural climate of sampling, pinning, reposting, and reblogging, the distinction between unintentional plagiarism and engaging properly with source material is not as easy as it sounds. The following interactive lessons will help you address this much larger issue: how to use sources with integrity.
Why is plagiarism such a big deal?
Even if you don’t see yourself as a scholar, plagiarism matters: every profession has its own version of intellectual ethics. In fields ranging from biology to business, music to law, the most exciting new ideas are not created in vacuums but in conversations with others. Innovation, like scholarship, is built on ongoing conversations across time and space. We call this discourse. Engaging in dialogue with other researchers empowers you to be a participant in discourse rather than a mere observer.
Actively participating in discourse makes you a strong member of any number of communities: from the conference room to the classroom. Plagiarism poses two challenges to the integrity of these communities: first, it operates as a major breach of trust, casting a cloud of doubt around future work; and second, it can also obscure the complicated history of an idea, making it harder for others to build on your work. Plagiarism hurts people and it hurts the creative process.
In an academic setting, tracing the original source of words and images helps you demonstrate where your ideas come from and what’s new about your contribution. While these modules will focus on using sources responsibly in an academic setting, the critical thinking skills you will practice apply to a variety of professional contexts.
So how do you learn to work with sources?
These modular lessons focus on strategies that help you to find, cite, analyze, and quote source materials. They do not re-tread the ground covered by the numerous style manuals on the market offering citation rules; rather, they encourage you to develop a particular set of “best practices” regarding sources. Using sources responsibly is not simply a matter of following the rules; instead, it is a complex operation that requires critical thought. Rather than merely telling you that plagiarism is wrong, these lessons teach you how to use source material in a more sophisticated way.
These lessons are designed to work individually or together as a sequence, with the knowledge that everyone comes from different educational backgrounds—and that everyone, from students to faculty, can always use some help navigating the legal and ethical minefield of building on the work of others.
Academic Integrity in Action will return to the issue of plagiarism in order to consider the consequences of the misuse of sources.
Finding Sources shows how using sources well begins with locating strong material and discusses the act of citation. We will offer some strategies to help you to start to think about your source material in complex ways even as you are still in the research phase.
Understanding Sources focuses on the kinds of strategies scholars use to understand complex textual, visual, and statistical information.
Using Sources demonstrates strategies for using textual, visual, and statistical information in your papers. It explores how to construct new ideas through engaging with the works of others.