I’ve been teaching psychology classes since 1994. We’re talking about 100 different sections of more than 10 different courses at five different universities. Thousands of students. And get this: No matter how big my class is and no matter what the topic, I always make sure to include at least some kind of writing assignment(s). I do this because I am thoroughly convinced that helping students develop their ability to put their ideas related to the material into words is as important a learning outcome as any. Because if a student can somehow understand some high-level concept but is not able to spontaneously articulate what the concept is all about, then the “knowledge” (if it really exists) is pretty much totally useless.
The Achilles’ heel of college teaching is plagiarism - which exists when a student attempts to pass off someone else’s writing as his or her own. Given how important it is for us professors to help develop students’ writing skills, any and all markers of plagiarism are about as appreciated as a slap in the face or a kick in the … well in any part of the body, really. The point is that plagiarism is really about as bad a thing as a student can do and it makes a professor feel totally insulted, betrayed, and unappreciated.
What’s more, most universities have strong policies against plagiarism, including, for instance, automatic failure of the assignment, failure of the course, reporting the incident to relevant administrators, or, in some cases, all-out expulsion. Yes, this is how egregious an offense plagiarism is! I’m not sure that all students realize this point!
I’m currently in my 7th year as the department chair of psychology at SUNY New Paltz. And in this position, all reported cases of plagiarism in the Psychology Department come across my desk. From this experience, I think I’ve got a good sense of some of the main problems and misunderstandings that lead to plagiarism. Here, based on this extensive experience, I provide guidance and commentary on plagiarism to help students avoid this nasty and offensive practice.
What is Plagiarism?
One of the things that gets professors so frustrated with plagiarism cases is this: Most of us think that all students know 100% what all constitutes plagiarism! We’re usually completely and genuinely shocked when a student commits plagiarism and then says something like this: “Oh, I didn’t realize THAT was plagiarism …” And this is a very common experience, believe me.
Plagiarism, which is presenting someone else’s writing as your own, comes in a few different forms, as follows:
A direct quote exists when you use the exact words of an author, unchanged. While citation formats may vary a bit from one another, they all agree on this: You need to use quotation marks for a direct quote. And in psychology writing (based on APA style), you need to provide the author(s), year of publication, and page number for a direct quote. So, for instance, suppose you are writing a paper about the history of the field of ethology, and you use the following quote from a paper that my student Andrew Shimkus and I recently published in Human Ethology Bulletin:
“Perhaps the longest-standing academic area to take Darwin’s ideas seriously in terms of understanding behavior is ethology” (Shimkus & Geher, 2015, p. 16).
This sentence is word-for-word from the article and, thus, is a direct quote. As such, note that it is within quotation marks - and note that I provide authors, year of publication, and page number. And you’ll also notice that the full APA-style reference is included in the References section at the end of this article. This is how we deal with direct quotes. Always.
In my experience, one of the most common forms of plagiarism exists when a student puts the citation at the end of the paragraph but the paragraph includes direct quotes - and there are no quotation marks. This is an easy thing to avoid and you should avoid it at all costs. Students in such instances often will say "well it was obvious that I was quoting that author's work since I included the citation" - well, actually, no. If you included the citation but did not include the quotation marks and the page number, then, in fact, it's plagiarism. Again, easy to avoid.
Often, instead of quoting a source directly, word-for-word, we paraphrase the ideas that are found in a published work. In this case, the process is the same as with a direct quote, pretty much, except that we don’t use quotation marks. Thus with the running example, assuming you are writing a paper about the history of ethology, you might write this:
The field of ethology is often presented as one of the first academic areas to apply Darwin’s ideas to behavior (Shimkus & Geher, 2015).
Here, we have presented essentially the same idea as included in Shimkus and Geher (2015), but we have reworded it in our own words. Still, the citation to the original published work needs to be cited (and, again, the full reference for this work needs to be in the References section of the paper).
An extremely common form of plagiarism in the writing of students is what we call “turn of phrase” plagiarism. You need to know what this is and you need to avoid it! Turn-of-phrase plagiarism is essentially rewriting someone else’s sentences in a way that structural elements of the sentences change in superficial ways but the meaning is unchanged. Such changes might include changing the order of words, using synonyms, etc. Many students seem to think that this is a good way to write. It is not. At all.
Paraphrasing ideas of others is not the same as rewriting all of their sentences with substituted words or structural changes. For instance, suppose that you find an article that includes the following sentence: “The stimulus in this study was very large and the environment was highly controlled.” It would be totally plagiarizing if you changed this to either:
“The stimulus in this research was enormous and the context was highly stabilized.” (note that it’s the same sentence but just with synonym replacements for “large” and “controlled”)
“In this study, the environment was highly controlled and the stimulus in this study was very large.” (note that here we simply have changed the order of the sentence elements - putting the bit about the highly controlled environment at the start rather than the end of the sentence)
Imagine you’re a professor and you see an entire paragraph filled with this kind of writing!!! In fact, we see it all the time. This is no way to write. As people who are cultivating communication and leadership skills in the next generation, we are not interested to see that you are able to carefully reword each sentence of someone else’s published work.
How Easy is Plagiarism to Spot?
Oh if only students knew how easy this stuff is to spot, the entire practice would cease worldwide! First off, there are now many computer-based plagiarism checkers (e.g., “turnitin” via BlackBoard). Let alone the power of the Google search engine. When I’m reading something that just does not sound like a student wrote it - or if it just has way more details than it possibly should given the assignment, I’ll just grab a small sample and put it into the Google search bar with quotes around it. When I suspect plagiarism and do this, about 99% of the time a website or pdf files comes immediately up with the same wording. This process takes me about 4 seconds and it’s nearly something that can be done in my sleep. Things that come up are wikipedia sites (boo!), pdfs of published papers, websites, etc.
The only thing easier than plagiarizing is finding evidence of plagiarism. I think if more students realized this fact, this problem would go away.
The Point of Writing Assignments in College
For me, making a big stink about plagiarism has a broader purpose. Like most of your professors, I’m in this business because I care enormously about cultivating the skills of the next generation. I think the world of my students and helping them advance their education and abilities is something that sits at the core of my work. The real reason that plagiarism bugs me is that it’s an indication that a student is not thinking about a writing assignment as a developmental opportunity. We don’t give students writing assignments to see if they can sound like some advanced PhD on some topic. In teaching undergraduate students, that would be a ridiculous goal. Rather, we give them these assignments so that we can help them develop their skills to express themselves in writing. Sometimes students don’t seem to realize this!
Writing for my Mother in Florida: What Putting Things in Your Own Words is Really About
One tip that I often give to my students in their writing is this: Don’t write for me - write for my mom who lives in Florida. My mom is great. But she does not have an advanced degree in psychology. So when I talk with her about my work, she’ll often ask me to slow down or explain things with more background, etc. Talking with her has been helpful for me as an academic, as I’ve concluded that if I can’t explain my ideas to my mom, then I’ve got to back to the drawing board. Being able to articulate your ideas to someone who is NOT a technical expert in the field is a great way to make sure that you are being clear and effective in your writing.
Sometimes students hold the mistaken belief that they need to use a lot of technical terms and big words, etc. This belief would be incorrect. As someone who has published nearly 100 academic pieces including five books, trust me on this one, please! Those “trying to sound smart” papers are the worst! And they often seem plagiarized, in fact!
Write how You Speak
Another tip that I often give to my students is this: Write how you speak. The words that you type should be pretty much the same words that would come out of your mouth if you were talking about the topic. Students often are totally shocked at this suggestion - but I guarantee that it will make you a better writer - and that it will totally reduce any inclinations toward plagiarism. Related, if you’re summarizing some article that you read and that you want to include in your paper, my advice is this: After you have read that article, put it face down and say out loud what the point from it is that you want to make. And then write those words in your paper.
No One Wants Someone Else’s Superfluous Details - Seriously
Sometimes students will summarize crazy details of a published article, such as the number of participants in a study that is described in the article, the statistics used for those authors to make inferences, etc. Such details are actually almost never helpful in getting your reader to understand the main point that you are trying to make in your work that connects with that other piece. If you’re summarizing someone else’s ideas for your paper, what you write should match exactly what you would be able to say without looking at that published article. And if you can’t do that, then maybe you don’t really understand the relevance of that other article to whatever points you are trying to make.
Plagiarism is a slap in the face to your professors. Perhaps just as bad, it’s a sign that you are not taking the right steps toward developing your writing and communication skills. And most students seem to hold major misperceptions regarding (a) what plagiarism is and (b) how easy it is for professors to determine whether a piece is plagiarized. If you’re a student (and in an important way, we all are), I suggest that you see each writing assignment not as an opportunity for you to seem smart to someone else who seems smart but, rather, as an opportunity for you to develop your skills and abilities as a communicator so that one day you will be a highly fluid and effective communicator. And this will help you help make the world a better place. And THAT is what’s needed these days.
Shimkus, A., & Geher, G. (2015). The ethologist’s corner. Human Ethology Bulletin, 30, 16-19.