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The Plague of Plagiarism

A quick google of the word plagiarism comes up with 28,900,000 links. And a quick browse through two pages worth of those links can make one think that the electronic age has brought about an epidemic of plagiarism.

What is Plagiarism?
Plagiarism is the act of copying another person’s words or thoughts, and pretending they are one’s own. Other definitions would include more ominous terms such as theft, piracy, fraud, treachery, felony…and rightfully so, because plagiarism is a serious offense. It is a crime punishable by law in most countries, especially in the United States.

False Impressions (Shouldn’t) Last
It is common misconception that only copying word-for-word without crediting the source is considered plagiarizing. But a plea of ignorance will not excuse you in a court of law or halls of academic institution, so equip yourself with the necessary facts.

Plagiarism comes in different forms:
•    Using someone’s body of work and claiming it as your own
•    Copying another person’s words or ideas without citation
•    Extracting passages from a source without proper acknowledgement
•    Using excerpts without quotation marks
•    Altering words or ideas in quotations without original author’s consent
•    Providing inaccurate source information, whether deliberate or not
•    Extensive copying from one source, even with proper credit, makes up the bulk of your work
•    Expanding on another’s ideas without appropriate reference
•    Changing the words while retaining sentence structure of a paraphrased passage without citation
•    Moving words or phrases around within a passage in an effort to paraphrase without appropriate credit
•    Appending phrases from different sources and tweaking them to fit together without citing
•    Borrowing words or ideas from your past published works and passing them off as new

Information Overload
The wealth of knowledge available to anyone with internet access is almost unfathomable. By most accounts, there are 50,000,000 web sites in the worldwide web, not counting ones that have been taken offline and those that cannot be publicly accessed.

The common theory is that this accessibility of information has given rise to the attitude “I searched, I saw, I copied.” It has been argued that the ease with which we can cut and paste articles together, along with the proliferation of paper mills, makes plagiarists of us all. I beg to disagree.

Why People Plagiarize
Anthropology tells us that humans started out as hunters-gatherers. Modern man began to cultivate land, domesticate animals and manipulate metal only after hundred-thousands of years. During this period, he developed more effective tools for hunting and gathering still. It took man thousands more years before he started wielding the power of science to create his version of things found in nature and synthesize ones that aren’t.

Thus, it is inherent that early in our intellectual development, we collect and echo existing ideas. We try them on for size before we learn to develop our own. Call it my theory on the Evolution of Thinking, if you will.

All too often, we were discouraged as students to come up with our own analyses and conjectures in the spirit of accuracy and literary aesthetics. “Stick to the facts” is a common slogan of well-intentioned teachers. Some of them forget that the purpose is to produce persons who, eventually, are supposed to posit their own theories, conduct their own researches and establish new truths.

Sometimes, it is criticism of our writing style that deters us from using our own words. We come to think our words are not good enough. So we borrow someone else’s. We use whatever will help us do the task with the least effort. It used to be pen and paper, then the copy machine. Now it is the internet.

Importance of Original Thought
The key is continuous progress. We should not settle for merely echoing other people’s thoughts. There should be a change in the way we perceive knowledge. Knowledge is stagnant and will become stale if insight is not extracted from it. Data gathered should be processed to lead to original thought. Plagiarism is the easy way out. It hinders us from developing critical thinking skills. It cripples our intellectual growth.

Gone are the days when we can extract passages from an obscure publication without fear of being caught. The way the internet allows us to plagiarize is also the means with which to catch us. Corporations, universities, governments, publishers, even casual writers, are getting increasingly alarmed to and armed against the activities of plagiarists. Plagiarism detection tools are available for purchase (such as Turnitin, Glatt and EVE) or free download (wCopyfind). There are even online resources (Copyscape) you can use to check if your document contains published content.

Plagiarism is a crime against the author whose thoughts or words you are stealing. It is an offense against the public you are deceiving. And it is an assault on your own character and intelligence.

How to Avoid Plagiarism
It is very easy to get infected with the plague of cut-and-paste when one intends to write. The only real antidote is careful preparation, extensive research and thoughtful execution.

1.    Plan. Having an idea of what you want to discuss and a working outline will guide you in focusing on your topic and cutting wasted time poring over unhelpful sources. A timeline will help you gauge how much time you have to actually write your literary masterpiece.

2.    Perform Ample Research. Go over several sources for a better likelihood of encountering opposing views on a subject matter. Misconceptions are also more likely to get shattered with more studious research. It will also become apparent to you which information is common knowledge.

3.    Evaluate Sources. With the proliferation of web publications and accepted legitimacy of blogs (online journals, mostly personal), anyone with an opinion and internet access can pretend to be a writer. Some legit-looking resources were intentionally published to propagate deceptive information.

Beware of basing your ideas on and quoting from such sources. Check your source’s references. Are they credible? Make sure something you accept as fact can be backed up by several sources. It is always best to search scholarly journals or articles published in university archives.

4.    Document Sources Properly. Take notes methodically, whether you are copying off published material, conducting an interview or analyzing your resources. This way, you will know exactly which ones are direct quotes, paraphrases or your own observations. And you will not fall into the trap of the accidental plagiarist by mixing up source information or supplying inaccurate ones.

5.    When in Doubt, Cite. Citing outside sources, when done strategically, strengthens the credibility of your writing.

6.    Make it a Habit to Read Unrequired Reading. Invest in your stock knowledge and cultivate critical thinking. Ideas borne out of these practices might come in handy in your next writing assignment. It will become easier to find a relationship between two discrete topics such as plagiarism and the cultural evolution of man.

7.    Take Advantage of Online Resources. It has been said that there is only so much original thought out there. At times, ideas we believe are common knowledge or original to us turn out to be something we heard from someone somewhere.

This is why, before I encourage you all to usher in a new age after plagiarism, I will check out Copyscape for any possible plagiarism hits.

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