How to plagiarize well (tips for my undergraduates) [Rerun Sunday]

Ideally, of course, this tip could be summed up in four simple words: Just Don’t Do It.

But you know that already. The syllabus tells you not to do so. Pretty much every instructor you’ve ever had since high school has told you not to do so. And yet, in spite of all that, you may someday find yourself in what we might call the Triple-P Problem: you’ve Procrastinated, and now you’re Panicking, so you turn to Plagiarism and hope against hope that I will somehow fail to notice that the words I’m reading aren’t your own. The odds are pretty good, however, that such hope is misplaced, since the same procrastination problem that has put you in this particular pickle also means that you don’t have time to cover your tracks especially well. So I’m going to share a few basic tips with you — all based upon actual mistakes that your predecessors in my classes have made over the years — so that you don’t follow in their footsteps and wind up with a bright, shiny F on your transcript.

  • Don’t plagiarize from the course readings. The odds are pretty good that I’ve done the course readings myself. You can, in fact, pretty much count on it. Which makes the odds pretty good that when I read long passages from those same readings in your paper, I will recognize them and know exactly where they came from. If you’re going to steal someone else’s words and try and pass them off as your own, it would be wise to steer clear of sources that you know that I have read myself. [Bonus sub-tip: If you’re foolish enough to steal from readings on our syllabus, at least pick one that we haven’t specifically focused on as an example of a pathetically weak, unsupported argument.]
  • Don’t steal from sources that I’m likely to be familiar with. Obviously, this is much trickier than avoiding stuff on the syllabus, since you don’t know what other books and articles I might recognize. But if your paper happens to contain some unusual turn of phrase that (a) will be widely recognized by scholars in the field as a key concept in an oft-cited work, and (b) isn’t a phrase that an average person is likely to have come up with independently, then you run a high risk of getting caught. [Bonus sub-tip: Don’t give your paper the same title as a famous book on your subject.]
  • Don’t steal from sources that are too far afield. This would seem to contradict my previous tip, but it’s important to strike a proper balance here. If you’re relying on a source that is too far removed from the actual subject at hand, it will almost certainly jump out at me as unusual (at best) or suspicious (at worst). You need to find a comfortable middle zone between “too close” and “too far” that won’t raise either of my eyebrows. [Bonus sub-tip: In my classes anyway, stick to readings from humanities disciplines. When your paper on contemporary mass media (of the non-digital variety) is filled with technical jargon from computer science, I see red flags right away.]
  • Don’t simply cut-and-paste your borrowed prose. I know. It’s quick. It’s easy. It saves you lots of time, and time is precisely what you don’t have lots of. But it also makes it very easy to spot the bits of your paper that have been lifted from elsewhere, especially if you don’t bother to adjust your fonts so that everything matches neatly. [Bonus sub-tip: When copying from an online source, take extra care to do something about any hyperlinks you’re bringing along for the ride. When small phrases show up in your paper underlined and in blue ink, it’s extraordinarily easy for me to know what to Google so I can find your original source.]
  • Don’t use prose that doesn’t sound anything like the way you actually speak or write. If you are prone to uttering simple, short, declarative statements, a paper filled with elaborate, flowery, multi-claused sentences is probably not going to be convincing. It’s also wise to steer clear of borrowing from sources that use lots of specialized jargon that you don’t understand, since I’m not likely to believe that you actually wrote that sentence about “the precession of simulacra” yourself if you haven’t been prone to saying such things out loud in class already. [Bonus sub-tip: If you don’t know how to use semi-colons correctly, don’t use prose from other people that employs them extensively.]
  • Don’t submit a paper that you haven’t actually read. Again, I know that actually reading what you turn in will slow the process down, and you simply don’t have a lot of time to spare. But this is a very important step. If I suspect (but cannot prove) that you have turned in a plagiarized paper, the first thing I will ask you is if you can tell me about your thought/work process in writing the paper . . . and if you haven’t read the stuff you’ve handed in as yours, then the game is up. [Bonus sub-tip: If you’ve been crafty enough to have someone else write your paper for you, it’s extra important for you to read what they’ve written before I do . . . especially if your ghost writer has spelled your name wrong on the cover page.]

If you’ve actually followed all the steps above, then there’s a halfway decent chance that I may actually believe that what you’ve handed me is something you have written yourself. Congratulations! Of course, at this point, the odds are also still pretty good that what you’ve handed in doesn’t fit the assignment well enough to earn a respectable grade. And you’ve done as much work (and maybe even more) trying to cover your tracks as you would have had to do in order to write the paper yourself. But now you may squeak by with a D instead of an F. So it’s all been worthwhile, yes?


You can find a brief explanation of “Rerun Sunday” here.

The post above originally appeared on 2 January 2013.

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