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How to Avoid Plagiarism: When to Cite Sources

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  • 0:12 Defining plagiarism
  • 0:45 Citation examples
  • 3:33 Do I need to cite a source?
  • 5:12 Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Doresa Jennings

Doresa holds a Ph.D. in Communication Studies.

Plagiarism is a very serious matter in both academia and professional writing. Plagiarism in an academic setting can lead to you failing a course or being removed from school completely. Plagiarism in professional writing can lead to being fired from a job or finding yourself in court being sued. Let's figure out how to avoid this issue!

Defining Plagiarism

To steal or not to steal? That is the question.

According to Merriam-Webster, 'to plagiarize is to steal and pass off the ideas or words of another as one's own.' Another definition of plagiarize is 'to use another's production without crediting the source.' While intentional plagiarism is a problem, we're going to focus on unintentional plagiarism. While it may seem improbable that someone could steal by accident, it can happen quite easily with writing!

Citation Examples

First, I want you to take a look some passages that are going to come on your screen and decide for yourself which ones need a citation.

'Depression affects 1 in 10 adults in the United States.' Does this sentence need a citation?

What about this sentence? 'All raw chicken should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees.'

How about this one? 'It felt like it was at least 90 degrees outside yesterday!'

If you are keeping score, the first two sentences did, in fact, need a citation. The last sentence, because it was an opinion of an individual, did not need a citation. A good rule of thumb for determining if you need to cite a source is to ask yourself these simple questions:

1. How do I know this information? If you know this information because you learned it from someone else, then you need to cite your source.

2. Am I presenting this information as a fact? If you are presenting information as fact, you need to cite your source and give credit where credit is due.

3. When I typed this information in a search engine, did I find sources that had been published with this idea? Here is where people tend to get into trouble. Sometimes we may have read information a while ago and don't quite remember where we heard it. Sometimes we assume things are common knowledge when it's really just information we have been exposed to so often, we forget it isn't simply a part of our genetic make-up. Doing a search of information you originally thought you just made up will let you realize you may have been exposed to it before. No matter how brief that exposure, you need to give credit.

Now, let's try this example:

'I feel that one class that should be mandatory in all colleges is finance. This is due to the fact that in 2011 alone, the average student loan debt was over $21,000.'

I was giving my opinion, so do I also need a citation? The answer is yes, because although I gave an opinion statement, the opinion was grounded in a fact produced by someone else.

How about one more example for good measure:

'I have often felt the first Shakespeare play one should encounter is The Comedy of Errors. This play, while short, is filled with the most interesting characters - my favorite being Dromio of Ephesus, who has the first encounter of mistaken identity.'

Do I need to cite a source? Here is a common question people ask. Do they need to cite a source when they are putting information in their own words?

The answer is yes. I need to cite Shakespeare as a source. I need to let them know when it was written and where they can find it. Yes, I need to provide a source for that. Even though it was influenced by my opinion, it was still my opinion that was grounded in a fact - the character from the play. Although you are paraphrasing information, you are still using knowledge you gained from the work of someone else. Even if you are evaluating, critiquing or discounting the work of someone else, you need to cite the information you got from that individual.

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