Plagiarism: Defined, Misconceptions Clarified

Commentary on Rampolla’s A Pocket Guide to Writing in History, chapter 6

For as long as scholars have put pen to paper they have at times presented the ideas and research of others as their own, either as self-serving deception or as accident. This misrepresentation of knowledge has been called in contemporary times by the name of plagiarism. Fundamentally plagiarism is stated or unstated claims on scholarly efforts which are not of the author’s own exertion; the presentation of concepts as one’s own that truthfully originate from the mind of another.

While many people think of plagiarism as simply directly copying the work of others, this may be perhaps the least common form of plagiarism. Any statement of fact which has not arisen from firsthand deductions and research is plagiarism. For instance, if it were not implied that John Tosh was read to demonstrate this author’s previous essay, it would have surely been considered plagiarism – yet when the author mentioned outside information, the Israel Finkelstein digs, the source of such data was cited for the reader. If no citation was offered but instead the author had claimed to know by virtue of his own merits the intimate details of ancient Levantine archeology, he very well would have plagiarized. Citation is a crucial aspect of research because it allows the reader to verify the sources of statements and to corroborate evidence. Without citing our sources we not only run the risk of producing work which is overlooked as a consequence of its questionable nature but also of being guilty of the academic offense of plagiarism.

Plagiarism may be classified in several unexpected forms when we adhere to the fundamental notion that any and all claims not of one’s own deductions and research meet the definition.  Simply reading something and writing about the topic area can be considered plagiarism if the writing contains conclusions originally absorbed from that reading: the knowledge of the area does not derive from our own research but from the research of others. We can even plagiarize by regurgitating our past writings (either directly or reworked) without citing the appropriate sources. Perhaps the basest form of plagiarism occurs when the writer attempts to deceive the reader into believing his words are his own by directly copying another author’s text and then replacing the original words with synonyms and reworking the wording.

It cannot be stated enough that plagiarism is not a technical crime but instead a crime of presenting the research of others as one’s own: any knowing of a field not directly experienced, reasoned or researched by the writer must be fully cited, even if the knowledge derives from works without copyright or undocumented sources. A student who lazily copies the work of others and replaces the words as to elude detection has not only failed in his responsibilities as a writer but also as a researcher: he should be failed without question. Citing as often and as rigorously as possible helps to ensure that one’s research has a firm foundation which will stand up against academic scrutiny and professional analysis.

Proper citation maintains the hope that a modern scholar writing on the history of Rome would be able to produce a work capable of being fact checked through a long line of historians and commentators, to rest on a basis of evidence rather than conjecture. Without citing our sources our work degenerates into nothing more than the latter, unable to be checked for accuracy and hedging on ignorant perceptions of complex histories. In order to do ourselves service as historians we must develop an aversion to such writing and instead be eager, perhaps even fanatical, about citing where our ideas and claims derive from.