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Confessions of an Accidental Plagiarist

Why you should set up a reference system sooner rather than later.

November 12, 2015

Wendy Robinson is a PhD candidate at Iowa State University. You can find her not talking about grad school on Twitter as @wendyrmonkey.




I was two days into a “dissertation vacation” (i.e. when I ditch my family and go on a writing binge somewhere without small children) when I discovered the note card. On it was a hastily drawn diagram and two sentences jotted heavily underlined, with stars nearby. To the side I had written “USE THIS! See pg. 87!”


The diagram was a good one and the sentences were an excellent summary of one of the main themes of my dissertation, something that I had been trying to state more concisely. I knew instantly that I wanted to use both in my draft.


And then came the problem: page 87 of which book or article? And was the diagram copied from page 87 or was it something I thought of after I read it? Were those two great sentences mine or a paraphrase of whatever the brilliant author of page 87 had written?


I urgently wanted to slip the diagram into my dissertation and move on, but I remembered an incident a few month earlier where a president at a nearby community college was accused of plagiarizing her dissertation. She certainly wasn’t the first academic leader to be accused of academic dishonesty where a dissertation was concerned, but her case was investigated  specifically after her dissertation was reviewed, and it was determined that she didn’t intentionally commit plagiarism.


The word intentionally sticks with me. I have no intention of plagiarizing my dissertation, but my note card experience showed me that it would be far easier than I had expected to accidentally plagiarize.


In the course of writing a dissertation, you can expect to read or skim thousands of pages of other people’s work. As you read, you take in their ideas, reflect on them, mentally respond to them, and have your own ideas influenced by them. That’s the whole point of the lit review, right? But the truth is that as the months go by, it may become increasingly difficult to remember where your own ideas or words come from and when they become so influenced or shaped by the work of another that you need to cite accordingly. If you want to avoid plagiarism, you’ve got to figure out a citation system sooner rather than later.


Pro-tip: Loose index cards with cryptic notes on them are NOT an effective citation system.


I ended up spending several hours that afternoon backtracking through my lit review to find page 87 instead of using that valuable kid-free time to write. In the end I found it and was glad I did: the diagram was mine but the hastily written sentences were heavily influenced by the authors and they deserved a citation. After that afternoon, I made a vow to get my citation act in order so I would know that the dissertation I will turn in someday will stand up to any scrutiny. I now make sure that when I make notes on an article or book that I ALWAYS note the title, authors, and I use my own coding system to note if I am using a direct quote, paraphrasing an idea, or collecting an idea that supports or refutes something else in my lit review.


Figuring out a way to prevent your own accidental plagiarism might be a little time consuming, but at least you’ll know that if you do it right, any coverage of your dissertation in the news won’t be because you forgot to cite a source!


How do you keep track of your sources and ideas when you do research? Share your strategies in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user Kate Sumbler and used under Creative Commons licensing.]


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