Advice for Students: How NOT to Plagiarize

An Apple for the Teacher

With final essays and term papers coming due (at least here in the States) I thought I’d take a moment to offer some well-needed advice to this year’s crop of young plagiarizers who are about to fail there classes because of really dumb decisions they’re making as I write this.

Listen. I know it’s been a tough semester and you have a lot of assignments due in a very short time and you really haven’t gotten any of them started and you’re not sure you understand the material or what the assignment is supposed to be. All that really matters to you right now is finding some way to get something — anything — handed in so you can hopefully pass and move on to next semester or to grad school or into politics or whatever you’re planning, if you can only pass the semester.

But you’re about to make a terrible mistake. Today’s technologies and the predictability of students make catching plagiarists easier than ever. And if there’s one thing professors can’t stand it’s plagiarism — we get a good laugh out of some of it, but it makes us steaming mad, too, and when your professor is steaming mad, that’s no good for you. At best you’re about to fail the courses that you most likely least want to re-take next fall; at worst, you’re about to get yourself thrown out of school. And you know what happens when you get thrown out of school, don’t you? That’s right — your student loans come due.


Are you ready for that?

What follows is a list of things NOT to do if you want to get out of this semester with your integrity and college enrollment status intact. Every item on the list is something I have caught (and failed) a student for. If you’re not convinced your professor is savvy enough to catch you (consider your track record, though: you were not convinced you needed to study, either!) and you insist on plagiarizing despite my warnings, at least don’t make these mistakes:

  • Don’t copy entries from Wikipedia. Or any online source, really, but Wikipedia seems to be an especially easy target for students — and it’s incredibly easy to detect. Wikipedia entries have an identifiable style, and they’re usually one of the first few results on any search. Which means your professor will be easily tipped off that you copied your paper from somewhere else, and will easily find out where. To be honest, any phrase you take from the Internet will be easily found, and it only takes one to fail your paper. Unless you’re willing to rephrase every sentence of your source in your own style and language (in which case, why not just write a paper?) stay away from anything on the Internet.
  • Don’t cobble together the free excerpts from several different “free essay” sites. Material from these sites are easily identified and easily discovered on the Web, with the added bonus of almost always being poorly thought out and factually wrong. So you get a double-F. Use the work you’re putting in to stitch together various sources into a coherent whole to actually do research.
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  • Don’t copy my work, or the work of my close colleagues. You can imagine how easy it is to tell when a student has copied something I wrote and handed it in as their own work. And it happens, because students who plagiarize are often not very careful about their sources.
  • Don’t paste formatted text into your papers. If you’re going to ignore the advice above, at least don’t just cut-an-paste with no regard for formatting! Nothing says “this paper was plagiarized” more clearly than a Frankenstein’s monster patchwork of fonts and text sizes scattered across your page because you didn’t take the time to reformat everything you pasted into your document into a uniform typeface, size, and color.
  • Don’t hand in first-person accounts written by people who are radically different from who you are! If the person writing your source material describes their first childbirth at age 30 while finishing graduate school, and you’re an 18-year old college freshman, it’s going to be pretty clear you didn’t write the paper yourself. Since many plagiarizers don’t actually read their source material, this is more common than you’d think…
  • Don’t use fancy concepts that you haven’t covered in class. Any time a student hands in a paper discussing the relation of hegemonic discourses to gender performativity in my 100-level women’s studies course, I get the feeling that they’ve plagiarized their paper. That feeling is usually right.
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  • Don’t use writing that is much better than your own. Let’s say your last three papers sucked. And let’s say your final paper rocks. I’m not saying you definitely plagiarized — maybe you learned both the course material and how to be an awesome writer n the last 4 weeks — I’m saying you probably plagiarized. And I’m right, aren’t I?
  • Don’t copy long passages (or many short passages) from your course’s textbooks. Next to her or his own work, the material your professor probably has the greatest familiarity with is th material in your textbook. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not OK to simply string together a bunch of material from your textbooks without referencing it — and if you do it anyway, your professor will know.
  • Don’t hand in a bunch of really well-written stuff that has nothing to do with the course or the assignment. Like I said, plagiarists often don’t read their sources very carefully, so their finished paper often has nothing to say about the subject of the assignment, or many times even of the class! Aside from making your professor laugh out loud at your ineptness, this will earn you the quickest F you’ve ever gotten.
  • Don’t hire a third-world knowledge worker to write your essay for you. Chances are, they’re much smarter than you and better at writing your native language, so you’ll be easily caught. And stop and think about it for a moment — you’re essentially helping to train them to replace .

Do do your own research and write a unique synthesis of that research in your own words, and draw conclusions based on your own reflections on what you’ve discovered. That seems like the best way to put a paper together and, in most cases, is a lot less work than plagiarizing effectively. If you’ve really blown it, go talk to your professor about taking an incomplete (and finish it as soon as possible — incompletes are nasty, evil burdens to carry for very long) or otherwise fulfilling your requirements. If you’re not sure how to start or move forward on a paper, again — go see your professor.

If you’re just lazy and don’t want to do any work to earn your grades and your degree, my advice is simple (and can be followed with minimum effort, which should appeal to you): get used to failure.

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