Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Plagiarizing College Research Papers

The brouhaha over the UNC football scandal has brought to light alleged instances of plagiarism in cases where student-atheletes were writing papers for class. These allegations were levelled by N.C. State fans who searched the Internet for phrases that matched those present in one of those papers that was published on the 'net in an attempt to demonstrate that the student involved had not cheated. (These assertions were derived by this author from reading articles in the News & Observer, as well as on-line sources such as reports in The suggestion that N.C. State fans were involve may be an assertion not directly founded in pertinent research.)

I've got news for you: If you're not writing fiction, or collecting you own evidentiary samples, then you aren't doing original work.

More than likely, rather than plagiarizing, the student was failing to properly attribute.

When I was in college at UNC, I took a course in journalism school for which I was required to write a paper on the press in Colonial America. This was a large survey class, and I earned one of only a handful of A's. This was a real turn around for me, as I'd struggled with "research" papers up until that time, thinking I was supposed to actually write something original.

In the course of the assignment, a light went off: I was supposed to copy somebody else.

I checked a half-dozen books on the subject out of the library, figured out the story I was going to tell, and then either copied, or paraphrased, from first one book or the next until I had my paper written. What I did right was to attribute: Footnotes for quotes, with the quote in quotation marks; footnotes for paraphrases without the quotation marks.

I thought that was cheating, at the time, but the paper was clearly done correctly as evidenced by the good grade. In hindsight, I realize this: You can't NOT use somebody else's ideas when you're doing a college paper.