A Note on Plagiarism

The following comments are intended as a helpful supplement to the official College statement on plagiarism. They should be read carefully.

What makes plagiarism particularly inexcusable is that it is so easy to avoid; it cannot be unwittingly committed if reasonable care is exercised and simple honesty is practiced. Two levels of practice in acknowledging one’s indebtedness to others are recognized, and in fact both may appropriately be used in the same piece of work. On the more formal level there is standard editorial convention in the use and form of parenthetical references (e.g., Ward 63) and in the use of quotation marks and indentation of quotations. These devices supplement the use of the less formal casual attribution (e.g., “John Randolph of Roanoke once said…”) and minimal acknowledgment (e.g., “In The Aspern Papers, Henry James has Mrs. Prest say…”). Good judgment, based on the observation of the practice of authoritative writers, careful attention to the directions of instructors, and close adherence to the forms prescribed in handbooks and style-sheets, should be sufficient to equip students to present the results of their work—whether research or creative—properly.

Especially helpful in much undergraduate work is the blanket endnote, since this frequently resolves the problem of what is considered “common knowledge,” in addition to eliminating excessive parenthetical references. Thus, in an endnote to the first sentence of an essay entitled “The Place of John Dryden in English Satirical Literature,” it would be quite proper to say: “Unless otherwise specified, all biographical information about Dryden and all bibliographical data about his works come from A. W. Ward, “Dryden,” The Cambridge History of English Literature, ed. A. W. Ward and A. R. Waller, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1933) Ⅷ: 1–64.” The limitation of the parenthetical reference must be scrupulously observed—it covers all, but only, “biographical information” and “bibliographical data”; Ward’s critical evaluations and literary assessments are not included, and any use of them (whether by quotation or by paraphrase) must be separately acknowledged (e.g., Ward 52). Indeed, if your instructor told you “to find out something about” Dryden as a satirist, merely to quote and paraphrase might satisfy her or him. But if your instructor told you to read certain works of Dryden and then to express yourself on the subject, it would be (a) a failure to complete the assignment for you to quote or paraphrase (and even to consult) Ward, even with acknowledgment, and (b) flagrant plagiarism to use his article without acknowledgment. In any case, a full List of Works Cited, in the form specified in the Rhetoric handbook, must be included. The only way to avoid the dilemma is to get specific instructions and to follow them; when in doubt, ask the instructor.

With regard to paraphrase, it is safe to say that most instructors do not want it; if they will, begrudgingly, accept it, they expect the source of the information and the prototype of the expression to be faithfully acknowledged. They can also easily detect a paraphrase. For one thing, they do not expect you to bring to their courses a rich endowment of scholarship and reflection on the subject-matter. They know that you are, frankly, going to have to look up even the names of Dryden’s satirical works; they know that you are, equally frankly, incapable both of the kind of evaluation of Dryden that won A. W. Ward international recognition and of his rather stilted but impeccable expression. It is foolish as well as dishonest to try to deceive them.

You are expected to learn by reading as well as by listening and thinking; it is only reasonable to expect you to acknowledge, in conventional ways, that this is what you are doing. You are also expected to learn to express yourself; as this skill grows through use, conscious paraphrase will become less necessary as well as more obvious—to you and to your instructors. Throughout this learning process, follow one simple rule: when in doubt, acknowledge the source.

John L. Brinkley ’59
Professor Emeritus of Classics
Hampden-Sydney College