Avoiding plagiarism

Former New York Times editor Jill Abramson is being accused of plagiarism in her latest book, the latest in a string of high profile authors who have been accused of such things. It always baffles me when experienced writers are accused of plagiarism. If deliberate, you would think that they would be smart enough to realize that they would be caught, given their fame and the wide readership their works will have, and the fact that they have usually not quoted from obscure archival material but contemporary ones. My guess is that at least for some of these people, the plagiarism is inadvertent, when they have internalized someone’s words to the extent that they have forgotten where it came from and think it is their own.

I remember the time when a colleague at my university introduced me to his wife and as we shook hands, she said, “Ah, the writer!” I was startled because one tends to identify oneself with one’s occupation and I have never made my living as a writer. Up until that moment I had my primary self-image as being a ‘physicist’ or ‘teacher/educator’. But I thought for a bit and realized that I had written three books by then, many published articles, and kept up a fairly prolific writing schedule with my blog. So the label was not entirely unwarranted but I still never use it myself.

But one of the things I learned about being a writer is that one must write. That seems obvious but is not so even for people like academics where writing is necessary but not the primary day-to-day occupation. For many such people, they need to write, like the idea of writing, enjoy having written, but shy away from sitting down right now and writing. I tell my colleagues that it is important to have a daily regimen of writing, whether it be writing drafts of manuscripts or compiling notes for future use. For the last ten years or more, I have been setting aside several hours a day to writing, without fail. Almost all my books and articles have emerged as a result of this regimen, even though they did not start out being envisaged as having that end purpose.

Writing a book takes a long time and requires copious notes and rewrites. The catch with making extensive notes far ahead of actually sending it out for publication is that it is easy to forget that the words are not your own. One has to be careful about inadvertent plagiarism, where one makes notes of something one has read and, a long time later when preparing a manuscript, inserts that prewritten text but forget that the words and ideas were not one’s own.

In order to avoid that pitfall, whenever I make notes, I immediately add a citation to the source so that I will not forget. If it is a direct quote, I put it in quote marks. As much as possible I use direct quotes from a source rather than a paraphrase. The danger with paraphrasing is that after some time, when re-reading the words one can think that the ideas are one’s own and not those of someone else. A fellow teacher said that she told her students to paraphrase and not quote directly, the very opposite of my advice to my own students. I see no virtue in paraphrasing other than to tell the reader that you understood what the original author said. The major downside is that whenever you paraphrase, you are altering the author’s meaning in some way.

A lot of students are hesitant to cite other authors extensively in their papers because they feel that this diminishes the size of their own contribution. I tell them that a lot of writing involves shaping a range of ideas into a coherent single work and that shaping process is where much of the originality arises, not necessarily in the ideas themselves. I tell them that, when in doubt as to whether to cite or not, to always choose citing, without exception. Not being thought to be very original is not the worst thing that can happen to you. The alternative, being thought of as a plagiarist, is terrible for a writer.


  1. Sam N says

    Paraphrasing is crucial for efficiency in scientific manuscripts, often because you are citing a unifying theme from 4 or 5 papers, or because you need to be doing so in a way that makes a direct lead in to the case for testing the current hypothesis. I have nothing against quote blocks in books, but have never used one in any of my journal papers.

  2. Mano Singham says

    Sam N,

    I would not call what you describe ‘paraphrasing’. It seems more like synthesizing and summarizing which is quite different. That adds value because you are sharpening and focusing and pointing to a general consensus view.

    Here is one example of what Abramson did:

    I cannot see that anything of value was added by her paraphrase.

  3. johnson catman says

    You are right, Mano. There is NOTHING of value added by the “paraphrase” in that instance. It would have been much better to simply quote the material. That is not even what I would call a “paraphrase”.

  4. Callinectes says

    Internalising words is a real risk. A friend of mine once used a turn of phrase so compelling that it ended up not just in my lexicon but in my general thoughts, which embarrassed me when I used it back to him having completely forgotten its origin.

    Less embarrassing but more frustrating was a time in school in my product design class. We more or less did the same fundamental project each year for four years, though the product in question was different each time and the quality of work was meant to improve each time. For one particular page that was essentially the same unchanged thing each time (in retrospect it would have really helped to know why we were doing each task, rather than becoming extremely adept bullshitters), and I hoped to save time by writing new segments in class and combining them with the previous version when I got home. To my horror I discovered that, far from penning fresh text to add to the old, I had managed to recreate exactly the same pages word-for-word off the top of my head without even realising it. Far from saving time, I had wasted it utterly. I accidentally plagiarised myself in the process of deliberately plagiarising myself, profiting nothing.

  5. Mano Singham says

    Reading again Abramson’s ‘paraphrase’ in my comment #2, I am more disturbed by the small changes than if it had been a verbatim copy. If it had been identical, then I could think that she had cut and pasted it in her notes and then later forgotten that it was not her own words.

    But the slight changes that she has made (such as ‘ilk’ for ‘cronies’ and ‘lamented’ for ‘laments’) suggest that she was trying to avoid giving credit to the original by making tiny tweaks. This is something that some students try to do, thinking that by doing so, the passage becomes their own, or worse, that it will foil plagiarism-checking software. It does not.

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