You can employ the following three simple steps to avoid plagiarizing in your written work.
Step 1: Accentuate the positive. Change your attitude about using citations.
Do you feel that you use too many citations? Too few? Many students worry that if they use too many citations their instructors will think that they're relying too heavily on the source material and therefore not thinking for themselves. In fact, however, using citations allows you to demonstrate clearly how well you understand the course material while also making clear distinctions between what the authors have to say and your analysis of their ideas.
Thus, rather than making your paper look less intellectually sophisticated, using citations allows you to show off your understanding of the material and the assignment. And instead of showing what you don't know, citing your sources provides evidence of what you do know and of the authority behind your knowledge. Just make sure that your paper has a point, main idea, or thesis that is your own and that you organize the source material around that point.
Are you worried that you have too few citations? Double-check your assignment to see if you have been given any indication of the number or kind of source materials expected. Then share your writing with another reader. Do you have enough evidence or proof to support the ideas you put forward? Why should the reader believe the points you have made? Would adding another, expert voice strengthen your argument? Who else agrees or disagrees with the ideas you have written? Have you paraphrased ideas that you have read or heard? If so, you need to cite them. Have you referred to or relied on course material to develop your ideas? If so, you need to cite it as well.
Step 2: How can I keep track of all this information? Improve your note-taking skills.
Once you've reconsidered your position on using citations, you need to rethink your note-taking practices. Taking careful notes is simply the best way to avoid plagiarism. And improving your note-taking skills will also allow you to refine your critical thinking skills. Here's how the process works:
(1) Start by carefully noting all the bibliographic information you'll need for your works cited page. (See #3 for more details on how to determine exactly what information you'll need for different kinds of sources.) If you're photocopying an article or section out of a book or journal, why not photocopy the front pages of the source as well? That way you'll have the bibliographic information if you need it later. If you forget to gather the information for a book, you can usually get it from the library's online card catalogue. Simply pull up the entry for the book you used to see the bibliographic information on that source. If you're working on an article from a journal, you can return to the database from which you got the original citation to find the bibliographic information.
(2) Next, try thinking about your notes as a kind of transitional space between what you've read and what you're preparing to write. Imagine yourself having a conversation with the author of the story/novel/play/poem/article/book you're reading, in which you repeatedly ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the author trying to explain?
- Why does s/he think these points are important?
- How has s/he decided to construct the argument?
- How does the structure of the argument affect the reader's response to the author's ideas?
- How effective is the author's argument?
Adopting this "conversational" approach to note-taking will improve your analysis of the material by leading you to notice not just what the author says, but also how and why the author communicates his or her ideas. This strategy will also help you avoid the very common temptation of thinking that the author's way of explaining something is much better than anything you could write. If you are tempted to borrow the author's language, write your notes with the book closed to ensure that you are putting the ideas into your own words. If you've already taken a step away from the author's words in your notes, you'll find it easier to use your own words in the paper you write.
(3) Finally, be careful to use quotation marks to distinguish the exact words used by the author from your own words so that when you return to your notes later in the writing process, you won't have to guess which ideas are yours and which ones came directly from the text. You'll have to experiment with different note-taking techniques until you find the one that works best for you, but here's one example of how your notes might look:
James Leoni, trans. Ten Books on Architecture by Leone Battista Alberti. London: Alec Tirani, Ltd., 1955.
BOOK I, CHAPTER X: "Of the Columns and Walls, and Some Observations Relating to the Columns"
- (p. 14) Alberti begins by talking about walls, and then says a row of columns is simply "a Wall open and discontinued in several Places;" he says the column supports the roof, and that columns are the most beautiful of the architectural elements; here, he'll address what columns have in common, and later he'll discuss their differences.
- (p. 14) all columns rest on a plinth (or dye), which supports a base, which supports the column, which is topped by a capital; columns are usually widest at the base, and taper toward the top; Alberti says the column was invented simply to hold up the roof, but men sought to make their buildings "immortal and eternal," so they embellished columns with architraves, entablatures, etc.
Notice that you can adapt this note-taking strategy to any format—whether you prefer to take notes by hand, on note cards, on your computer, or some other way. For more information on developing an effective note-taking technique, you can consult any grammar handbook. Here are a few particularly helpful ones:
- Leonard J. Rosen and Laurence Behren. The Allyn & Bacon Handbook. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2000. OR Allyn & Bacon online at: www.abacon.com
- Joseph Gibaldi. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2003.
- Kate L. Turabian. A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Step 3: So many details, so little time! Locate the appropriate style manual.
Don't worry—no one can remember all the different citation conventions used in all the different university disciplines! Citing your sources appropriately is a matter of:
- determining which style your instructor wants you to use,
- finding the appropriate style manual, and
- copying the "formula" it gives for each type of source you use.
First, carefully read the assignment to determine what citation style your instructor wants you to use (APA, MLA, Chicago, and CSE are the most common). If s/he doesn't specify a citation style in the assignment, check your syllabus, coursepack, and/or Blackboard site. If you can't find the citation style in any of those places, ask your instructor what style s/he prefers.
Second, academic citation styles follow specific formats, so making an educated guess about how to structure your citations and works cited page is usually not a good idea. Instead, find the specified style manual in the reference section of the library, on the reference shelf in the Writing Center, or online.
Finally, style manuals provide easy-to-follow formulas for your citations. For example, the MLA handbook provides the following format for citing a book by a single author:
Author's name. Title of the book. Publication information.
You can use this formula for your own citation by simply plugging in the information called for, following the format of the formula itself. Here's an example of how that might look:
Berlage, Gai Ingham. Women in Baseball: The Forgotten History. Westport: Greenwood, 1994.
If you'd like more information on citation styles, see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial.