Plagiarism in the Classroom Prevention rather than Detection


We all know that college students are required to demonstrate proficiency in writing a research term paper. Most have learned, or think they have learned, the techniques of research and note taking in high school and most have been duly warned about the dangers and consequences of plagiarism. But it seems that the actual instructions most high school English teachers give on how to avoid plagiarism is largely inadequate given the prevalence of the problem among college freshmen. The typical advice seems to be something like this: “Never merely quote large chunks of material word for word and then simply put quotation marks around it. Instead, paraphrase the material into your own words and then footnote it.” The typical student interprets this advice as follows: “I can’t just copy stuff word for word. So, I’ll change a few words around and include a footnote.” Then the fledgling researcher goes to the library, copies material word for word from the sources and later revises this material by substituting synonyms for key words in each sentence. He includes footnotes and thinks he has written a proper term paper. So does the teacher. The student has fulfilled the assignment and believes he has learned the formula for all his future term paper assignments.

But wait a minute! Not so fast! What he has actually produced is a term paper which may be good enough in high school and may even earn him a high grade but it will receive an “F” grade in college because it is “guilty of the crime” of unintentional plagiarism. Substituting a few synonyms for the original words is not enough to avoid the pitfall of plagiarism if the sentence structure is still identical. The high-schooler has created a distinction without a sufficient difference hence plagiarized work. All he has really done is to reproduce an original article(s) with cosmetic changes. And when he does this in college, the professor will fail him every time and leave him dumbfounded because he thought the footnote(s) safeguarded him. The student should have been instructed that he may borrow all of somebody else’s ideas but he may NOT borrow all of somebody else’s sentence structure. The material must be completely transformed into the student’s own language and construction, and then footnoted.

What high school teachers fail to do is to teach the proper way to take notes so as to avoid this deadly pitfall. Students must be told that a term paper’s content may be 100% borrowed material but it must be written in the student’s own style and the way to achieve this is to take notes properly. What follows is the sure fire method of “killing of three birds with one stone” or HOW TO TAKE NOTES, AVOID PLAGIARISM, and ACTUALLY WRITE THE TERM PAPER ALL AT THE SAME TIME.

Let’s say you’re doing a research report on the responsibilities, the educational requirements, and the employment outlook of an entry-level computer programmer. The OUTLINE of the body of the paper will look like this:

II. Computer programmer
A. Responsibilities
B. Educational requirements
C. Employment outlook

Next, you go to the library and locate several good sources of information on these three aspects such as The Occupational Outlook Handbook, Careers in Computers, and High Technology Careers. Now proceed as follows:

1. Take notes on 8.5″ x 11″ paper.
2. Devote each sheet to a single source & a single aspect, IIA, IIB, or IIC, only.
3. At the top of the sheet, put a heading from the above outline. For example,
II. Computer programmer
A. Responsibilities
4. At the bottom of the sheet, provide all the information that will go into the Works Cited entry and write down the page # for the footnote entry.
5. Take notes from this source as follows: read a few sentences at a time, digest what you have read and without looking at the page, summarize what you have just read onto the 8.5″ x 11″ sheet. This step is crucial because what you are actually doing is writing the first draft of your term paper as you are taking notes. If the material is highly technical, read it several times before attempting to summarize it. Precise figures may be copied.
6. Continue this labeling and note taking method for each different source and outline point. Thus, if you are required to have at least three sources for each aspect II.A. II.B., and II.C. then still use a separate sheet for each source. Later, you can stack together all your IIA, IIB, & IIC sheets like a deck of cards and basically have the body of your term paper done.

This method of taking notes is a bit time and effort consuming but its beauty is that you are composing the term paper in your own words as you are researching it. There is no need to rewrite anything later. And it’s a foolproof way of avoiding the pitfall of unintentional plagiarism. Can you ask for anything better than this when it comes to writing a term paper?