In order to fully understand the intricacies of plagiarism, one first must be able to define it.
Plagiarism is: the practice of taking somebody else’s work or ideas, and then passing it off as your own. This then, provides a working definition of plagiarism. While this gets to the essence of plagiarism, it does not really get deeply into the intricacies of it.
Delving Deeper Into the Act of Plagiarism
Therefore, the University of Oxford therefore takes this definition a little further, and states that:
“Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own, with or without their consent, by incorporating it into your work without full acknowledgement. All published and unpublished material, whether in manuscript, printed or electronic form, is covered under this definition. Plagiarism may be intentional or reckless, or unintentional. Under the regulations for examinations, intentional or reckless plagiarism is a disciplinary offence”.
Plagiarism in Academia
Unfortunately, academic work, unlike the more creative arts such as creative writing or filmmaking, is often all about taking somebody else’s work and ideas, and critiquing such work – therefore it is very important to have the necessary tools and knowledge to be able to give credit where credit is due, otherwise you could be accused of plagiarism and intellectual dishonesty, regardless of your intentions.
Intellectual dishonesty though, can cover many aspects. It can lead to the fabrication of information or data to fulfil an assignment requirements. It can also lead to the passing off work and ideas that are not your own. However, adhering to plagiarism rules is not quite as simple and straightforward as one might think. There are some notably grey areas involved. The most prominent of which is perhaps that of citing what is known as ‘common knowledge’.
The Issue of Common Knowledge and Plagiarism
It is often said that it is not necessary to cite a source where the information included is regarded as ‘common knowledge’. However, this raises some problems and issues in the world of academia. What is regarded as common knowledge is very much subjective and open to debate.
How to Identify Common Knowledge
So, what is common knowledge to one person might not necessarily be so for another person. Therefore, common knowledge is the knowledge which the average educated person accepts as being reliable without referencing it. For example, a historical fact, such as World War II occurring during the years through 1939-1945, would be considered to be common knowledge, and would not need a reference.
However, this is all still very problematic, as a line needs to be drawn somewhere in respect of common knowledge, and decisions need to be made with regard to what falls within that line, and what demands a citation.
What To Do When In Doubt
Therefore, if you are in any doubt, the absolute best course of action is to simply approach your teacher, and ask for their opinion – or, failing this, to simply provide a citation regardless, as you cannot lose marks for providing too many references in your work. In addition, common knowledge might also be broken down beyond information that most people know, to information that is shared by a cultural or national group, or information that is shared by members of a particular field of study.
Providing a Reference
Thus, if you are writing within a particular field, then it is not necessary to provide references for well known concepts or theories within that field, but a reference would be necessary if you are using a concept or idea from another field in your writing, that the reader might not be aware of. Ergo, you also need to consider your audience when making such decisions, so this is also something to consider when deciding whether or not to include a reference for something that might fit into the category of being common knowledge.
What is Not Considered Common Knowledge?
Luckily, what is not considered to be common knowledge is a little clearer, such as: datasets that have been generated by other people, statistics, or references to studies done by other people. Nevertheless, if you follow some of these very simple rules, then you can much mitigate your chances of being accused of plagiarism.
Putting It All Together
When combining general definitions of plagiarism, and the issue of common knowledge, it is possible to come to a more succinct and accurate definition of plagiarism, which the Council of Writing Programs Administrators defines as:
“Definition: In an instructional setting, plagiarism occurs when a writer deliberately uses someone else’s language, ideas, or other original (not common-knowledge) material without acknowledging its source”.
Thus, this is now getting closer to the very essence of plagiarism, and what it entails. Nevertheless, we are still not quite there with this definition, as this definition has an emphasis on deliberate plagiarism, but it should be noted that plagiarism does not have to be deliberate in order for someone to get into trouble – and this is further complicated by the fact that it is very difficult to prove that an act of plagiarism was not deliberate.
Unintentional plagiarism then is when someone is accused of plagiarism due to failing to adhere to academic writing conventions, despite the fact that they did not intend to cheat. As such, for example, someone might fail to provide a source for something that they deemed to be common knowledge (but which their tutor did not), and this could be regarded as plagiarism.
Using Ignorance as an Excuse
A student might also fail to exactly quote an author’s words, or might change the meaning of an idea in paraphrasing, which could similarly lead to accusations of plagiarism, even if done unintentionally. Therefore, any ignorance of plagiarism rules cannot be used as an excuse, as it is each student’s responsibility to find out what these rules are, and to adhere to them in every aspect.
Using Plagiarism Checkers
In the end, it does not matter whether any breaches of these rules are intentional or not, as the end result will be the same. It is probably the case that most forms of plagiarism are unintentional, and this is why dedicated plagiarism detection software platforms, such as Viper, are becoming increasingly important, so that you can scan your work and make sure that you have not accidentally reproduced any work without the proper citations.
Making Sure to Critique Yourself
However, it is also important not to be too hard on yourself if some issue does occur, as the sheer volume of work that you will need to produce over your schooling (and particularly if you progress to postgraduate level) will inevitably mean that some slip-ups will occur from time to time. What is therefore important is how you respond to these issues, and to tighten up your work and make sure that the same mistakes are not repeated. This is important, as one of the things that your teacher will look at is whether it is an isolated incident, or whether a pattern has begun to emerge. So, it is important to learn from any mistakes, and to learn quickly.
Overall then, plagiarism is being defined as: using someone else’s ideas or work, and passing it off as your own, either intentionally or unintentionally, unless that work or these ideas can be considered to be common knowledge. This then, gets to the very essence of plagiarism. However, many sub-categories of plagiarism exist, which should be studied and understood, so that you have the tools and knowledge to avoid all types of plagiarism within your work.