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Ethical Use of Sources

The Nature of the  Academic Community

Most of us hold either informal or formal memberships in a variety of communities, each with its own in-group history, preferences for social behavior, and etiquettes. As we use the term here, community refers to any social group characterized by identifiable traditions for how to act, speak, and share with other members of the group. A community may be as small as a family unit or as large as a nation. For example, the preferences for interacting within a particular religious congregation differ from those for a particular on-campus fraternity, which differ from those on Facebook.

We spend most of our social lives as members of various communities and act within them according to different sets of rules. Sometimes those rules are explicitly codified; sometimes they are implied. In either case, preferred modes of communal interaction and exchange are learned rather than innate behaviors. As newcomers to communities, some of the rules may seem expected or reasonable, while others may seem odd or arbitrary.  As we become established members of social groups, we tend not to notice those rules, so accustomed do we become to operating according to them.

The term academic community may sound a bit presumptive: Where is this community exactly? Who are its members? What are its preferred modes of symbolic and material exchange? What are its special etiquettes and rules of engagement? Davidson College is one of thousands of academic communities across the globe—in this case, a particular group of students, faculty, and staff who support one another as intellectual persons at a particular site. This intellectual community’s actions intersect with faculty and students at other schools, in other research sites, at non-profit think tanks, galleries, theatres, and in online forums. As a member of Davidson’s academic community, you are also a member of the global intellectual community writ large.

 

The Function of the Academic Community

A chief function of the academic community’s members  (both students and scholars) is to produce new knowledge: to locate new information, to develop new explanations, to invent new methods and theories, to offer new solutions, to design new experiments, and to reflect on previous conclusions and findings. This vast array of creative and intellectual activities is mediated through language, numbers, visual forms, sound, music, and writing, all of which are treated as intellectual property within the community’s system of exchange. Books, essays, speeches, musical compositions, renderings of data, visual art, performances, and digital representations are the traditional goods of this economy.

When we read, attend, view, or listen to scholarly and creative productions, we are, in a sense, consuming these goods. We absorb their messages; we puzzle over their meanings; we assess their applicability (and respond to them in a myriad of ways). Frequently, our consumption goes one step further: we make use of those goods by recycling them, in whole or parts, into our own academic and creative work. We make use of others’ work to serve our own goals as writers and creators. We quote from others’ discourses; we draw upon others’ data; we import others’ images into our own work.

It is difficult to find academic writing that doesn’t in some way make use of the work of others. In academic discourse, an inquiry into an issue, an interpretation of a text, or experimental testing of a hypothesis is situated within a tradition of inquiry that has preceded it. The key question facing academic writers isn’t so much “What do you have to say about X?” but rather “What have others had to say about X, and how do you respond?” Nearly all academic writing, then, brings together two texts: your own and others’, Linguists call this feature intertextuality,  weaving together two or more texts to serve a coherent purpose. Your own analysis or argument will typically be the most important feature of a college writing assignment,  but others’ writing (others’ data, others’ visual representations) may appear anywhere, wherever referring to past research and thinking is required.

This is not say that all academic writing is intertextual.  There are times when your professor may ask you to compose a paper without turning to the work of others to contextualize or enhance your argument.  Not all writing assignments ask you to respond to what others have said. But most times you will, in one way or another, be expected to respond to what others have already argued, found, said, or calculated. Most academic writing is responsive writing. To borrow a metaphor from philosopher Richard Rorty, as academic writers, each of us enters “the conversation of humankind,” the vast order of discussions and disagreements about subjects of mutual interest, carried out in various discourses across time. We signal our entrance into that conversation by representing and responding to the thinking, creative production, and experimentation that has preceded us, thereby joining the ongoing discussions that animate intellectual work.

 

Academic Integrity: Indebtedness

Accurate citation of the sources of these appropriated goods is the “price” we pay for transplanting others’ creative and intellectual work into our own texts. When we make use of another’s work, we find ourselves (in various degrees) indebted to the person who has assisted us in carrying out our own projects. Indebtedness is a recognition that someone else (or some group) has helped us to construct something or make something happen. I’m indebted to the stranger who helped me to push my car out of a snowbank. I’m indebted to my quirky uncle who gave me advice about choosing the right appetizers. I’m even indebted to the politician whose rant about the evils of homosexuality catalyzed my work on behalf of queer persons in the workplace. To signal the fact that I am in their debt, I name them, I call them out. Not to bring their influence and assistance to light is both dishonest (after all, I couldn’t have accomplished certain things or carried out certain actions without them), and disrespectful (an erasure of their humanity, their agency).

No one expects us to identify every single person who has helped us in a snowstorm, or has given us advice, or has galvanized our activism. Such acknowledgment is sensitive to context. When I go out to dinner with friends, I may choose to say that Uncle Jasper advised me to order cheese first, but if I don’t, no one at the table will remind me that I have neglected to mention him.  I never asked the name of the stranger that February morning in Detroit (something I regret not having done). But academic and intellectual writing demand that we formally acknowledge, through the citation of sources, other writers and thinkers whose work and ideas we refer to and otherwise make use of in our essays, reports, presentations, and other creative work.

Academic integrity, then, is achieved primarily through honoring one’s own and others’ contributions to the creative and intellectual work of the academic community. Scrupulous citation, careful documentation, non-tendentious summary of others’ findings (however counter they may run to your own position) are some of the ethical practices associated with maintaining integrity. Other behaviors that foster integrity include formally thanking colleagues (classmates, librarians, friends, instructors)  for their input and assistance, something typically done in a note of acknowledgment. Academic integrity is also maintained by avoiding plagiarism, a serious transgression of the social ethics of the academic community.

 

Plagiarism Defined 

Whether deliberate or the result of negligence, not to acknowledge the use of another’s work will be perceived as an act of deception called plagiarism: using another’s numerical, textual, visual, representational, or sonic material without attribution, giving the appearance that such material is of one’s own creation. We are not talking about a citation error (such as placing a period instead of a comma between the author’s name and the title of the work in a bibliographic entry, or using the author’s last name rather than Ibid. in a footnote). We are talking about others’ work that is presented so that by all appearances, the reader assumes that it is your own. Regardless of a writer’s motives or intentions—whether carelessness, unintentionality, or fraud is involved—a reader who discovers that you have used uncited texts, data, or other forms of representation in your work can rightfully find this an instance of plagiarism, sanctionable as an Honor Code violation.

Plagiarism: using another’s textual, numerical, visual, digital, or sonic material without attribution, giving the appearance that such material is of one’s own creation.

To avoid such charges, keep this simple motto in mind: “When in doubt, cite.” Even if you are unsure of the correct form for the citation, at a minimum, note the author’s name and the title of the work. In such a scenario, you will likely have an opportunity to correct your citational error, but you cannot be charged with plagiarism if you provide evidence that data, a term, a phrase, or a passage of text is not your own. Citation is always needed in the following scenarios, adapted from Dartmouth College’s Institute for Writing and Rhetoric’s Sources and Citation at Dartmouth College website.

 

When Citation Is Required
  • If you quote text from or borrow data or material from a source, you must indicate the extent of the quoted material and cite the source.
  • If you are borrowing text, place the quoted material in quotation marks or, if the passage is four lines or longer of typed text, offer it as a block quotation. Your citation should appear at the point of quotation, either in parentheses or in a footnote or endnote, depending on the citation guidelines used in the course. Listing the source in a bibliography or list of Works Cited does not, by itself, constitute proper citation. You must cite it at the point of use. [Guidelines for citing sources and for assembling a list of works cited can be found on the “Citing Sources” tab above.]
  • If you quote a distinctive phrase, or even a single distinctive word or piece of data particular to someone’s analysis, interpretation, or argument, place it in quotation marks and cite the source.
  • If you paraphrase an idea or special information from a source—that is, if you restate the idea in fresh language, altering the exact wording—you must cite that source.
  • If you use images, maps, charts, tables, data sets, musical compositions, film, artworks, new media compositions, multimodal compositions, computer source code, song lyrics, and the like, you must cite your source.
  • If you find a solution to a problem on a website and you use that solution—even if you use it just to teach yourself to solve the problem—you must cite the source.

To reiterate, readers think of plagiarism as an act of deception, whether the result of negligence or fraud. Copying others’ terms, phrases, passages, or data into your work is a conscious act. Every writer should know what words and data are her own, and which have been borrowed from sources.  To signal this difference, you should always distinguish exactly what you take from sources and what you add in the form of responses or commentary.  The most common signal is a set of quotation marks surrounding the borrowed material [“_____”], but in your notes you can use other techniques to signal that material is from a source.  Some writers place a “Q” (for “quotation”) in front of the quoted passage (in order to avoid changing quotation marks in quoted passages to single apostrophes).  Other writers place quoted source materials in boldface, or in a color other than black. Still others put all quoted material in italics and all of their own writing in regular font, a method that will give you an easy way to review your response to the source text’s passages. Always append a page number and other identifying information, perhaps coded to a list of sources you keep while reading or researching. This will save you time in the end since you won’t have to retrace your steps to locate citational information later on. Scrupulous note-taking and citation practices will also lessen the chances of plagiarizing as the result of your own negligence whereby, though you did not set out to deceive or to steal, the end result is the same: you present to the reader unattributed text, data, or other material.

From time to time, especially as a newcomer to the academic community, you will likely make citational mistakes if you don’t follow the citation regulations detailed in citation guides.  Disciplines across the college use a variety of citational guides written by disciplinary professionals: Modern Language Association (MLA), American Psychological Association (APA), the Council of Science Editors (CSE), Chicago Manual of Style (called simply “Chicago” or “Turabian”), and others. Because each of these professional organizations sets its own rules for citation, it’s quite possible (if you don’t follow their guides to the letter) that you might make an error: you might underline rather than italicize the title of a work; you might place a comma rather than a period between the elements of a citation; you might use footnotes when parenthetical references are mandated. These are all mistakes that can be corrected, similar to a misspelling. Your professor will expect that you correct these before you submit your work, or may call attention to such errors and ask you to correct them. These are not instances of plagiarism since no fraud was involved.  Writers make such mistakes not because they are dishonest, but because they haven’t followed the formulae. Even the most practiced writers don’t trust themselves to remember accurately every variation in citation style. The “Citation” tab of this website will allow you to access these various citation styles, and you may also consult Little Library’s guide to Citing Sources. Some writers prefer to use online citation generators like Zotero or RefWorks (which Little Library makes available to all students). The formats for citation using MLA, APA, Chicago (Turabian), and CSE can also be referenced here.

 

Several Examples of Improper and Proper Citation

Imagine that a classmate is writing a paper on the subject of how citizens make politically-informed decisions. She is interested in fashioning a thesis that carefully defines the term public since she plans to argue that if we don’t take the term public into account, we cannot understand citizen behavior.  She researches how various scholars have defined the public.  One of these is Hannah Arendt, a twentieth-century political theorist, who says this:

The term “public” signifies two closely interrelated but not always identical phenomena: It means, first, that everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. For us, appearance—something that is being seen and heard by others as well by ourselves—constitutes reality. Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life—the passions of the heart, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses—lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existence unless and until they are transformed, deprivatized and deindividualized, as it were, into a shape to fit them for public appearance (51).

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.)

An Instance of Plagiarism 

If Arendt’s words appear in your classmate’s paper in this way, she has plagiarized:

Citizens are, by nature, acutely aware of the behaviors and beliefs of others, with whom they may identify, disidentify, agree, or disagree. Citizens understand that they live in a social sphere whereby everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. As opposed to private life, life in public is visible to strangers, often calculated for performative effect, and marked not so much by authenticity, but by a calculated construction of personae.

Notice that Arendt’s words slip uncited into the writer’s own prose, masquerading as something written by the writer herself:

Citizens are, by nature, acutely aware of the behaviors and beliefs of others, with whom they may identify, disidentify, agree, or disagree. Citizens understand that they live in a social sphere whereby everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. As opposed to private life, life in public is visible to strangers, often calculated for performative effect, and marked not so much by authenticity, but by a calculated construction of personae.

Again, the circumstances in which this happened and the intentions of the writer do not come into account when assigning plagiarism.  Perhaps the writer simply forgot that these were Arendt’s words; perhaps the writer intentionally hid the source writer’s identity; perhaps she cut passages from her digital copy of Arendt and directly pasted them into her own writing, ignoring attribution. The brute fact is that a core rule of academic integrity has been violated. To avoid plagiarism, make sure that you don’t copy and paste directly from the source document into your own paper. Instead, take the important intermediary step of copying the source text into a file devoted to gathering notes from your sources. This is similar to the old fashioned method of copying terms, phrases, and passages from sources texts onto notecards. You should get in the practice of clearly noting all of the pertinent source information (for example, author, title of the work, publishing information, page number) for later reference. Develop a system for differentiating notes and source information from your own draft (the best way is to keep these in separate files). That way, you will be supremely conscious of what terms, phrases, passage, and data come from others, and which writing and data are your own.

The correct use of Arendt’s passage is this:

Citizens are, by nature, acutely aware of the behaviors and beliefs of others, with whom they may identify, disidentify, agree, or disagree. Citizens understand that they live in a social sphere whereby, according to Hannah Arendt, “everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. (51). As opposed to private life, life in public is visible to strangers, often calculated for performative effect, and marked not so much by authenticity, but by a calculated construction of personae.

Another Instance of Plagiarism: Patchwriting

Imagine that another classmate is writing a paper that evaluates a documentary film on the hazards of coal mining in Kentucky. He has located the work of Robert Coles, who articulates the various factors that go into documentaries.  Coles writes this:

All documentation. . .is put together by a particular mind whose capacities, interests, values, conjectures, suppositions and presuppositions, whose memories, and, not least, whose talents will come to bear directly or indirectly on what is, finally presented to the world in the form of words, pictures, or even music or artifacts of one kind or another. In shaping an article or a book, the writer can add factors and variables in two directions: social and cultural and historical on the one hand, individual or idiosyncratic on the other (87).

Robert Coles, Doing Documentary Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)

The writer wants to tell his audience that definitions of documentary come in various flavors. He wants to show his readers that he’s done his homework, and has discovered a range of definitions. He writes this:

Documentary has been variously defined, with various components highlighted or not, and various elements included or not in those definitions.  Some define documentary primarily as a persuasive genre, organizing its elements around a specific message, often political, social, or ideologic in nature. Others differentiate documentary from other forms of artistic production, aligning it with journalism. Still others find that documentary lies somewhere between fact and fiction, reminding us that a documentarian’s vision can be individual or idiosyncratic, the product of a particular mind.  When evaluating a documentary film, it is vital that we clarify which definition is most pertinent.

Notice that the writer has picked up (perhaps inadvertently, perhaps purposefully) some of Coles’s language: “individual or idiosyncratic” and “particular mind,” words that appear uncited in his paper. The occasional use of uncited words or short phrases in one’s writing is called patchwriting. It seems innocent in a way; after all, the writer has borrowed very little of the source text, and (in this case at least) the material that has been borrowed seems only mildly original. Still, the writer has represented Coles’ special words as his own:

Documentary has been variously defined, with various components highlighted or not, and various elements included or not in those definitions.  Some define documentary primarily as a persuasive genre, organizing its elements around a specific message, often political, social, or ideologic in nature. Others differentiate documentary from other forms of artistic production, aligning it with journalism. Still others find that documentary lies somewhere between fact and fiction, reminding us that a documentarian’s vision can be individual or idiosyncratic, the product of a particular mind.  When evaluating a documentary film, it is vital that we clarify which definition is most pertinent.

The writer will avoid the charge of plagiarism if he adds this information:

Documentary has been variously defined, with various components highlighted or not, and various elements included or not in those definitions.  Some define documentary primarily as a persuasive genre, organizing its elements around a specific message, often political, social, or ideologic in nature. Others differentiate documentary from other forms of artistic production, aligning it with journalism. Still others find that documentary lies somewhere between fact and fiction, reminding us that a documentarian’s vision can be, in Robert Coles’ formulation, “individual or idiosyncratic,” the product of “a particular mind.” (51). When evaluating a documentary film, it is vital that we clarify which definition is most pertinent.

Patchwriting often occurs when writers paraphrase and pick up some of the original language of the source in their paraphrase when fresh language is required.  This is an inappropriate paraphrase, a form of plagiarism:

According to Robert Coles, documentary is a complex genre that contains elements connected to the producer’s talents. Coles understands documentary as a contingent affair, contextualized by history and inflected by personal factors and variables (51).

Even though the writer clearly indicates that he is paraphrasing Coles’ writing, he has included, unattributed, words from the original.

This is an appropriate paraphrase, using fresh language to represent the Coles’ original ideas:

According to Robert Coles, documentary is a complex genre that contains elements that are connected to the producer’s sensibilities, interests, and desires. Coles understands documentary as a contingent affair, contextualized by history and inflected with personal vision (51).

Other Forms of Plagiarism

You also will be charged with plagiarism if you

  • purchase or otherwise copy a paper from an internet source that sells or otherwise makes available papers that students can submit as if they are their own,
  • submit a paper written by another student, or
  • submit a paper of your own that was previously written for another class without first clearing such a submission with both the previous and your current professor.

 

Creating a Note of Acknowledgment

Most academic work is the result of collaboration. We ask friends and colleagues to review our drafts; we depend on the feedback and critique of peers in classes; we ask librarians for assistance; we expect that our professors will suggest amendments to our writing. To honor this direction and feedback, it is best to include a note of acknowledgment as a regular part of every piece of writing that you complete. If you look at the materials at the front of a book written by a scholar, you’ll find several pages acknowledging the help and guidance of others. Because essays are shorter, so are their notes of acknowledgment, typically no more than three sentences or so.  Here’s a typical note of acknowledgment written by a Davidson student:

I want to thank Jim Monroe for his idea to investigate journalistic responses to mass incarceration, a lead that allowed me to contextualize my central claim to good effect. Also, I thank Mary Ann Cummings for her scrupulous editing, which taught me the value of efficient sentences.  Thanks also go to my peer review group (Kanye Williams, Samantha Voorheis, and Mei Chang) and to Professor Smith.

Often, such a note appears in a footnote attached to the first sentence of the essay or report, but it can also be placed at the end of the document, in a section entitled “Acknowledgement” just before the list of works cited.

 

A Final Word 

Most students resort to plagiarism when they find themselves in a desperate place. Perhaps the deadline for an assignment is fast approaching, and you’re in a panic. Perhaps you find yourself with an especially serious case of writer’s block—despite your best efforts, you cannot get words on the page. Perhaps you feel especially unable to make an argument, or carry out an analysis, or report on your research, or synthesize what you’ve read. You might feel unprepared, inadequate, even stupid. At some point in our writerly lives, all of us face tough times. If you find yourself in dire straits, contact your professor and squarely, honestly let him/her know what’s happened, that you’ve stalled out, are stuck, or have mismanaged your time.  Do not risk fraudulent action, the consequences of which will be far worse than if you come clean and contact your professor. Plagiarized work is easily detected these days using digital affordances, and your professors can spot it because they are professionals who know their fields and are sensitive to stylistic shifts, special formulations, and important published data.  Far better to communicate openly with your instructor as a first step.  What happens next will vary by professor, but at least you won’t be found plagiarizing, won’t appear before the Honor Council, and won’t suffer consequences that will damage your Davidson career.

For more information about the ethical use of sources, you may consult the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) guidelines, outlined here.

 

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