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This isn't going to be like one of those cheesy cop-video shows on the guilt-channel where the plagiarism police are careening around cyberstands at high speeds as they chase a stash of kidnapped words or ideas through the paperhood. Instead, take a few minutes to read a few friendly suggestions about something you're asked to do all the time in school: finding, using, and citing sources. The current term is information literacy.
As a writer, you're always a part of some sort of club. Actually, you're in a whole bunch of them, as you move around in the disciplines, work in your courses, address various topics, and write for different readers. You always have to make a home for yourself, get to know the neighborhood, and join the conversation. A big part of this involves learning what others have believed, known, and said yesterday as you do your own thinking and learning and writing today. This is why showing your readers how and why you've connected with somebody else's work is a big feature of academic writing. You enhance your own credibility, recognize the work of others, and help your readers.
While it's important to know why we need to engage with others in our writing, it is also crucial to know how to do this, which involves a bunch of underlying values, conventions, and even laws. To keep this a simple story: You happen to live in a place and time in which people can own information, ideas, and words. We call this intellectual property, and whether it's a movie or a song or a scientific report or a literary sentence, if you want to use it, there are rules to guide you. One of them is that you can't pass off the work of others as your own. We call this plagiarism. (The roots of the word, incidentally, are linked to kidnapping with a net, which probably brings us full circle to the use of the web these days.)
As a writer, then, you always need to tell your reader that you're using somebody else's words, ideas, or information—unless it's common knowledge (you don't have to tell your reader how you found out Beloit is in Wisconsin) or not really original (you can't own the sentence "Time passed," unless you "Just Do It" and then it gets complicated again). Admittedly, it's a slippery slope with a lot of gray matter everywhere: Common knowledge for whom and in what context? Is an idea original if you see it in more than one source?
Moreover, you need to tell your reader not only that you've used somebody else's stuff, but also what part you're actually using and how you have specifically used it (the citational two-step). And to make it more difficult, citations happen in different places (textnotes, footnotes, endnotes) and in different ways (you can cite references, paraphrases, and quotations). Finally, while you will discover that there are underlying patterns and shared principles to citation, these practices vary a lot depending on the discipline, which takes us back to the beginning point about the academic communities you're a part of now.
So, it's simple and complicated in the way most interesting things can be. However, here are a few basic concepts to keep in mind (then scoot on to the links for more logistics):
- Always keep in mind the purpose of your use of sources. When you forget the rhetorical context, you start dumping material into your writing mindlessly. What's your point? Always ask yourself: "Why am I using this source here?"
- Keep good records of your research activities. Always keep materials and notes that will indicate clearly who said what. Write your bibliography and citations during your writing process—not after.
- One important reason for documenting sources is to provide directions for your reader—a kind of map you provide as a courtesy directing him or her to the threads of an academic discourse you have encountered. Be a mensch and pitch in. Add a link to the story.
- If you use someone else's words or ideas, give people their due, even if you think intellectual ownership is a capitalist plot keeping you and you MP3-comrades in chains. Those who give credit shall gain it.
- You should only quote sources when the way in which this material is expressed is especially pertinent or effective. Conventions about quotations vary by discipline. If you quote sources (always verbatim), be as selective as possible, and make sure you manage the "hinges" between your voice and theirs correctly and fluidly.
- If you paraphrase a source, it isn't appropriate to "blindstitch" their words or phrases into your own. Be true, but make it new.
- When you're in doubt, err on the side of caution and cite your sources more often than not. Again, norms about how frequently are a function of the source, your use of it, and the disciplinary conventions in play.
- Find accessible and reliable guidelines (like the links in this section) that can help you with the principles and logistics of integrating and citing all kinds of sources in your work (in a variety of style formats). You won't remember it all, and you need to have a place you can always go back to.
- Learn to enjoy this. It's an important way of being a part of something bigger, of seeing how it all fits together, of finding your own place in the academic conversations in which you will have the chance to participate.