The Price of Plagiarism
Do not plagiarize. Simply put, this is another way to send your application straight into the trash. Or worse, maybe it won't; instead, maybe your plagiarism will come back to haunt you halfway through your college career. This is a pretty simple concept—stealing work from someone else and claiming it as your own is not a good idea. It's also unethical, and the harm it can cause is far worse than the temporary benefits it may bring. Of course, ignorance of the law does not excuse breaking it, and plagiarism is no different. So be sure that you understand where the line falls between “citation of sources” and the theft of someone else's work. You would think this would be a pretty solid line—and it is—but a reminder every now and then of exactly where it falls never hurts.
Plagiarism or Common Knowledge?
The term “common knowledge” refers to facts that can be found in so many available sources that they are more than likely to be known by most people. For example, it is common knowledge that the initials “b.c.” stand for “before Christ.” It's common knowledge that the American Revolution was fought against the British. These are facts commonly known by just about anyone who made it through elementary school. You are not required to document common knowledge when you state it as fact.
However, you are still required to cite sources and document facts that are not commonly known. This also holds true for ideas that compile and interpret facts (though those facts themselves might be common knowledge) into a single concept, theory, or idea that is not your own. For example, if you were to write, “What goes up must come down,” you would not be required to cite Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein as your sources. Why not? Because this fact is easily observable for anyone interested in noticing the world around them—much less that elementary-school education. You are not introducing anyone else's ideas or language in a way that makes it seem as if you are claiming them as your own.
However, if you were to write, “What goes up must come down, unless, through the implementation of magnetic forces, gravity is countered to the point that it is matched or defied. This has been proven.” Well, this is Sir Isaac Newton's language, his theory and experiment, and therefore not yours to claim. In this case, even though you are stating a commonly known fact, you are using someone else's thoughts and language as your own. If it is not your theory, not your experiment, and therefore not yours to claim in writing, then you are plagiarizing. Consequently, you must provide supporting evidence by citing the name of the person who conducted the study, along with the where and how (and the why, if applicable).
Document your sources in standard documentation style. The MLA (Modern Language Association) Style is the most commonly accepted form of citation. You may even want to purchase the MLA Handbook.
Plagiarism and the Internet
The Internet is now probably the most popular source of information for everyone, including students. With so many sources available, a number of questions have come up regarding ways to prevent plagiarism. Copying information word for word is plagiarism, whether the source is a book, a magazine, or a Web site. The same ethical guidelines apply to the Internet and printed sources. When you refer to someone else's ideas, or you take a quotation from a printed page or a Web site, you are required to name the source. Anything else is plagiarizing. For example, if you were to go online and copy (or buy) an essay, change the wording a little bit, and then paste your name onto it, that would be blatant plagiarism.
If a writer wishes to make use of pictures, movies, images (such as graphics or photos), or musical compositions, a majority of the same rules continue to apply. If you copy visuals or graphics from an online source, this can be very much the same as quoting from a book or essay, and your source for the picture, graphic, or data has to be cited. The same rules continue to apply to other uses of visual or written data taken from Web sites. For example, if you were constructing a Web page for a computer science class and you copied pictures, graphics, or some other kind of visual information from other sites, you would be required to provide your source for each. In the case of online sources, it is best to obtain written permission from the site owner, at least in the form of an e-mail, prior to making use of those materials.
Strategies for Avoiding Plagiarism
Use quotation marks to indicate you have taken directly from the text of a book, Web site, or any other source. This is a clear way for you to show you're using someone else's thoughts in the exact words they used. You do not need to worry about quoting your own thought processes (obviously) or things that are common knowledge. This can be especially important when you are taking notes. Do not write copy anything out without also noting where it came from and who said or wrote it.
Paraphrasing is a little bit different. When you are paraphrasing, you are making use of someone else's ideas, though you are explaining them in your own words. This is a legitimate tactic that many college students use when incorporating sources into their writing. However, even though it is your words that end up on the paper, you must still cite the sources for the data you have used.
Be careful not to cross the line between paraphrasing and just rearranging or replacing a few words to try to modify someone else's words to look like your own. You may as well be playing Russian roulette. Make sure you read over everything you plan to paraphrase. Put away the book or close the Web site you are quoting as you write. This way, because you are unable to see the original language, it is a lot less likely you will plagiarize—even accidentally—by copying the source word for word.
Write out your own ideas, in your own words, without stealing from someone else's hard work. Double-check your paraphrasing against the source that you used in order to make absolutely certain that you did not “accidentally” (it can happen) use the same wording as the author.