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Advice for Students: How NOT to Plagiarize

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.

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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.

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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.

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Are you ready for that?

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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.
  • 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.
  • 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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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

How to Self-Taught Effectively

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

More About Self-Learning

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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