Writing Ethically


Learning Objectives

  • identify the definition of academic dishonesty
  • identify the definition of intentional and unintentional plagiarism
  • identify reasons for concerns about plagiarism and academic dishonesty in academic settings
  • identify strategies to avoid intentional and unintentional plagiarism and academic dishonesty

Building on the ideas of others is a key component of academic writing.  It’s expected that you will consult what others have done, and use their thinking to inform your own.

Giving credit to those sources as you go is the expectation.  It is expected that you will use sources ethically–note whose words and ideas you are using, exactly where you use them.

This is an idea many writers at all levels struggle with, as this video demonstrates.

Using sources ethically takes practice, which is what we will do below.

Academic Dishonesty

Academic dishonesty or academic misconduct is any type of cheating that occurs in relation to a formal academic exercise. It can include

  • Plagiarism: The adoption or reproduction of original creations of another author (person, collective, organization, community or other type of author, including anonymous authors) without due acknowledgment.
  • Fabrication: The falsification of data, information, or citations in any formal academic exercise.
  • Deception: Providing false information to an instructor concerning a formal academic exercise—e.g., giving a false excuse for missing a deadline or falsely claiming to have submitted work.
  • Cheating: Any attempt to obtain assistance in a formal academic exercise (like an examination) without due acknowledgment.
  • Bribery or paid services: Giving assignment answers or test answers for money.
  • Sabotage: Acting to prevent others from completing their work. This includes cutting pages out of library books or willfully disrupting the experiments of others.
  • Professorial misconduct: Professorial acts that are academically fraudulent equate to academic fraud and/or grade fraud.
  • Impersonation: assuming a student’s identity with intent to provide an advantage for the student.

Watch this video to deepen your understanding about the importance of practicing academic honesty.

Defining Plagiarism

Plagiarism is the unauthorized or uncredited use of the writings or ideas of another in your writing. While it might not be as tangible as auto theft or burglary, plagiarism is still a form of theft.Stick figure drawing of a politician speaking at pulpit, with someone in the audience holding up a sign saying "citation needed"

Examples of plagiarism include:

  • Turning in someone else’s paper as your own
  • Using the exact words of a source without quotation marks and/or a citation
  • Taking an image, chart, or statistic from a source without telling where it originated
  • Copying and pasting material from the internet without quotation marks and/or a citation
  • Including another person’s idea without crediting the author

In the academic world, plagiarism is a serious matter because ideas in the forms of research, creative work, and original thought are highly valued. Chances are, your school has strict rules about what happens when someone is caught plagiarizing. The penalty for plagiarism is severe, everything from a failing grade for the plagiarized work, a failing grade for the class, or expulsion from the institution.

You might not be aware that plagiarism can take several different forms. The most well known, intentional or purposeful plagiarism, is handing in an essay written by someone else and representing it as your own, copying your essay word for word from a magazine or journal, or downloading an essay from the Internet.

A much more common and less understood phenomenon is unintentional or accidental plagiarism. Accidental plagiarism is the result of improperly paraphrasing, summarizing, quoting, or citing your evidence in your academic writing. Generally, writers accidentally plagiarize because they simply don’t know or they fail to follow the rules for giving credit to the ideas of others in their writing.

Both intentional and unintentional plagiarism are wrong, against the rules, and can result in harsh punishments. Ignoring or not knowing the rules of how to not plagiarize and properly cite evidence might be an explanation, but it is not an excuse.

Flow chart guide to understanding written plagiarism. The first question asks, "are my own words being used?" If yes, then ask, "is it my own idea?" If yes, then you're not plagiarizing, but if it's not your own idea, then you are paraphrasing and need a citation. If your own words are NOT being used, then you need to ask if you are using quotation marks or using a block quote. If you are not, then you are plagiarizing and need to quote it.

Avoiding Plagiarism

Tip #1: Make Sure You Are Very Certain about What Is and is Not Plagiarism

Tip #2: Give Yourself Plenty of Time to Complete an Assignment

Running out of time on an assignment is a main cause of plagiarism. Rushing to meet a deadline can result in carelessness (leading to unintentional plagiarism – see the next tip) and the desire to find a quick, easy solution such as copying someone else’s work. Don’t give in to that temptation! Plagiarism is a serious academic offense, and the chance of being caught (which is likely) is not worth it.

Avoid this situation entirely by starting your assignment far ahead of time and planning out when you will complete each phase of the writing process. Even if your teacher does not require you to turn in materials for each stage of the writing process (i.e. brainstorming, creating a thesis statement, outlining, drafting, revising, etc.), set your own personal deadlines for each step along the way and make sure to give yourself more than enough time to finish everything.

Tip #3: Document Everything 

Plagiarism isn’t always a conscious choice.  Sometimes it can be unintentional, typically resulting from poor documentation of one’s sources during the research phase. For example, sometimes students will write down an idea from a source using words identical to or very close to those in the original, but then when they go to write their paper forget that the material was not already in their own words.  Adopting good research habits can prevent this type of plagiarism.

Print, photocopy, or scan the relevant pages of every source you are using (including the title and copyright pages, since they have the information you need for a bibliographic citation).  When taking notes by hand (or typed into a file), list the bibliographic information for each source you use.  Make sure to put quotation marks around any wordings taken directly from the source (and note the page where you found it), and remember to put everything else into your own words right away, so there is no danger of forgetting something is a quote.  Documenting where all of your ideas, information, quotations, and so on come from is an important step in avoiding plagiarism.

Tip #4: Don’t Include Too Much Material Taken from Other Sources

Never plagiarize, provide context, quote, summarize, and paraphrase.

Tips for integrating sources into your research.

Writing assignments are about your ideas, your interpretations, and your ability to synthesize information.  You should use relevant sources to support your ideas using evidence such as quotes, paraphrases, and summaries, as well as statistics and other data.  But don’t lose sight of the fact that your argument is central! Including too much material from other sources can result in a paper that feels like it has been pasted together from a variety of authors, rather than a cohesive essay.  Such papers also run a much higher risk of setting off plagiarism warnings in SafeAssign or other plagiarism-detecting software.  Try to find a balance: use enough evidence from credible sources to prove your points but don’t let the ideas of others take the place of your own thoughts.

Tip #5: When in Doubt, Give a Citation

There are certain types of information – typically referred to as common knowledge – that don’t require a citation when you include them in your writing.  These are facts that are widely known and can be easily found in a number of sources. They are not ideas that originated with one particular source.  Examples include scientific facts (for example, that solid, liquid, and gas are three states of matter), general historical information (for example, that George Washington was the first US president), or even information commonly known to certain groups of people but not others (for example, most musicians know that a C major triad includes the notes C, E, and G, even though many non-musicians would have no idea what a C major triad is).

For everything else, you need to include a citation, regardless of whether you are quoting directly from the source, paraphrasing it, or giving a summary.  If you are at all unsure whether something qualifies as common knowledge or not, give a citation. You can also consult a more experienced figure in your field, such as your instructor, to find out if something counts as common knowledge or not.

In academic writing, the “Quote Sandwich” approach is useful for incorporating other writers’ voices into your essays.  It gives meaning and context to a quote, and helps you avoid plagiarism.  This 3-step approach offers your readers a deeper understanding of what the quote is and how it relates to your essay’s goals.

  1. Step 1: Provide context for the source.  If you haven’t used it yet in the essay, tell us the source’s title and author (if known), and any other information that’s relevant, like the purpose of the organization that published it, for instance.
  2. Step 2: Provide the quote itself.  Be sure to format correctly and use quotation marks around exact language.
  3. Step 3: Provide a summary and/or analysis of what the quote says, and how it relates to the subject matter of your essay and your thesis.