Practical Insights: Preventing Plagiarism

Practical Insights: Preventing Plagiarism by Shaun Jamison

One of the challenges of avoiding plagiarism is that it is remarkably common on the Internet. You will see unrelated sources look almost (or actually) identical. You will see people using photographs and drawings belonging to others, neither giving credit nor getting permission to do so. However, just like many other aspects of life, the standards are much greater in higher education than on the Internet. As someone working on getting a law degree, or as someone who has already earned your Juris Doctor or Executive Juris DoctorSM degree, you must be particularly careful to avoid plagiarism due to the ethical implications and the high standards of integrity to which legal professionals are held.

A related challenge is that people often think plagiarism means "cheating," but it is generally broader than people would assume. Simply, if you use the expression of another without giving proper credit, you have plagiarized.

A common example is using the actual words of another person without providing quotation marks and a citation-even just a single sentence or even a distinctive phrase. How does this happen? Sometimes people do it without knowing the rules and so without realizing they are plagiarizing; sometimes they simply forget that what they are including was in fact a quote; and sometimes they are behind on their work and desperate, and so they cut corners.

Hopefully, you would never knowingly use another's words without citation on purpose. However, it is entirely possible to forget where you found something during a major research project. This is why it is critical to keep a research journal and to document quotes and citations in that journal as you go. This will prevent inadvertent issues with quotes. Make no mistake, accidental plagiarism is still plagiarism.

What about paraphrasing? Paraphrasing is permissible, but there are rules to keep in mind. You must still give credit (i.e., a footnote or other citation to the source) for the paraphrased expression, but you do not put it in quotes. The paraphrase needs to be sufficiently different in expression. It needs to be in a different sentence structure and rewritten into your style and "voice."

How about stitching together a paper or brief using outside sources if you properly quote and paraphrase? This can still be a problem if a substantial portion of the paper is not your analysis and expression. As a general rule of thumb, if a third or more of the paper consists of quotations or close paraphrases, you have rewriting to do.

Note that the prohibition on plagiarism applies to drafts, bulletin board assignments, outlines, and other academic submissions. If you turn it in to the school, it must have proper citations and attribution. Default to strictly following rules unless you are explicitly informed otherwise in writing by your professor. As a practicing legal professional, the same goes for anything you turn in to your boss, and all the more so to a court of law.

Do you need to give credit for photographs, drawings, charts, and the like that you include in your work product? Yes. And you need permission or a license to use other people's work, unless there is an exception to the copyright laws such as fair use.

Here are 10 tips for preventing plagiarism:

  1. Become familiar with what plagiarism is.
  2. Read and follow assignment directions carefully.
  3. Learn proper citation rules.
  4. Don't use any material whose source you can't identify. It's just like the airport: don't accept packages from strangers.
  5. Don't reuse your old materials-that can be plagiarism, too (as well as academic dishonesty if you attempt to submit the same work for credit on two separate occasions).
  6. Create a timeline for your projects so you are not rushing at the last minute and making mistakes.
  7. As noted above, maintain a journal as you research and write.
  8. Use the copy with reference function in Westlaw.
  9. Use History and Folders in Westlaw.
  10. Use a bibliography software system.

The ultimate rule is: if you are unsure, check beforehand. Don't just roll the dice and hope for forgiveness after the fact. As a student, check the law school requirements and policies or ask your professor. As a legal professional, ask a colleague, a mentor, or even a state bar ethics hotline. Developing good habits will help you avoid getting near a line you don't want to cross.