You may remember from some point in your schooling a lecture about a little thing called plagiarism. Wikipedia states, “Plagiarism is defined in dictionaries as ‘the wrongful appropriation, close imitation, or purloining and publication, of another author’s language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions, and the representation of them as one’s own original work,’” attributing this definition to the 1995 Random House Compact Unabridged Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary. In other words, plagiarism is stealing ideas. While you may not mean to steal someone else’s work, it can happen accidentally, especially with so much information abundantly available online, and available for use with a simple copy and paste. So, how do you keep from doing it? Here are some basic rules to keep in mind:
Keep Close Track of Sources
Sometimes it’s harder than it sounds to know when ideas are not your own. Say you are putting together a report on the implications for your company of current economic conditions. You may end up reading many sources, and unconsciously using the words of one of them in your report. To avoid this scenario, be sure to track and use your sources carefully.
Know When Ideas Are Not Your Own
You should attribute ideas to someone else when (1) they are not your own ideas or (2) they are not commonly known. Specifically, you should cite your source when:
• You write something exactly the way someone else has written or said it.
• You paraphrase a key idea written or spoken by someone else.
• You mention ideas that are not easily located in three or more sources.
Learn How to Cite Sources
There are varying ways of presenting this information. To identify the right way to do it, use a good style manual, like the The Chicago Manual of Style (used for book and general publishing), The Associated Press Stylebook (used for journalistic publications), or The Gregg Reference Manual (used for general business writing). Use the one most closely associated with your industry, or your company’s standard (some companies will also have in-house style guides with additional or alternative guidelines).
Hint: Citing sources typically involves noting the name of the author, the name of the publication where the information appeared, the date, the publisher, and the publisher’s location. If you’re caught without a style manual, include this information in some form.
Know Where They Go
You can cite sources in a footnote, an endnote, some variation of a “works cited” list, or within the text. Some citation systems include more than one of these approaches. Use the one that’s most appropriate according to your style manual, or the one that is least obtrusive for readers. When writing online content, use links liberally.
When in Doubt, Cite Your Sources
If you have any doubts as to the originality of your work, go ahead and mention your sources. For example, you could mention several sources you used that, combined, helped you formulate a particular idea. It can’t hurt, and actually lends credibility to your writing; readers know you have put some thought, and research, into your work.
How do you avoid being an idea thief? Let us know in the comments!
About the Author: Karen Marcus, M.A. is a Northern Colorado copywriter and grant writer who has been helping clients in a wide range of industries to put their best word forward for 13 years.