How much do You know about plagiarism?

Germany’s Minister of Defence, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (or more correctly: Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg), faces allegations and extensive proof of plagiarism as well as consequences for his mistakes. Obviously, plagiarism has much finer shades than plain copy-paste. It now seems to be most appropriate to talk about what could be considered as taking credit for someone else’s (or one’s own previous) work and how to correctly refer to the original source.

Well, I lied. Actually you can simply copy and paste bits of someone else’s work as long as you refer to them correctly and format it right. As you might guess, avoiding plagiarism has to do a lot with accurate referencing. Sadly, deviances from APA-conform referencing constitute the majority of errors students have made when submitting their manuscripts to the Journal of European Psychology Students (Vainre, 2010 December 15). Such errors however can easily lead to accusations of having stolen someone’s work and rightful credit (yes, also misreferencing is plagiarism!). This post will then introduce some specifics of referencing that will help you to avoid the shame of being called a copycat by the academics.

According to the scientific tradition and principles of empiricism, every theory should stem from previous research. Therefore, when proposing your ideas, you have to acknowledge the authors of theories their research, basically everything that has directly influenced your work. The APA Publication Manual (APA, 2009) distinguishes between two ways of crediting sources: quoting and paraphrasing.

The word-for-word-kind of a reference is called quotation. How to present someone else’s thoughts in their own words depends on the length of the quote. A short one doesn’t exceed 40 words. You should “incorporate [the short quotation] into text and enclose the quotation with double quotation marks” (APA, 2009, p. 170). Note that referring to a quote, you also have to indicate the page number where the quote is from. Also, if necessary for the purpose of clarity, you can add your own words, given that you show them: use brackets for that (APA, 2009). Longer quotes deserve their own block with specific formatting rules:

If the quotation comprises 40 or more words, display it in a freestanding block of text and omit the quotation marks. Start such block quotation on a new line and indent the block about a half inch from the left margin . . . . At the end of a block quotation, cite the quoted source and the page or paragraph number in parentheses after the final punctuation mark. (APA, 2009, p. 171)

If the block quotation says more than you find necessary to express, you can omit bits, but you have to show it. According to APA Manual, you should use four points (three ellipsis points and a full stop) to indicate having omitted text between two sentences (see p. 173, APA, 2009).

Next to quoting someone else’s work, you can also paraphrase it. If a quote is a straightforward copy-paste with the original wording (and grammar mistakes!), paraphrasing is saying what the original says in different words. Paraphrasing makes your work more easy to read as the style of writing remains constant throughout the paper. It will also help you understand the meaning of the paper you cite much better – you have to invest thought and effort to incorporate the source to your work.
When paraphrasing, make sure you construct whole new sentences instead of just replacing some words with their synonyms. Also, very importantly: when using a source in a different language than the one you write your paper in, a mere translation of the original is not paraphrasing, but still quoting. If you speak German, you can see that Mr zu Guttenberg failed make the difference in many cases (GuttenPlag Wiki, n.d.). Purdue University offers some tips to exercise your skill of paraphrasing (Purdue OWL, n.d.).

On plagiarism and self-plagiarism
As you cannot state someone else’s work is yours (plagiarism), you cannot also present something you have already published as a new accomplishment (self-plagiarism). It is not to say you cannot use the same data. For the new publication, you have to include additional data to the analysis, do new analysis, find more sources, other implications etc – write up a completely new thing. Self-plagiarism does not only make you look cheapish – as if you’re just trying to increase your number of publication with no extra work, but may also come with allegations of violating the copyright of the original publisher.

Cite correctly and you save yourself from a lot of trouble. However, naturally you cannot go for writing up a text consisting of blocks of quotations only – you have to show your original input to show you make a considerable (and a publishing-worthy) contribution to the existing pool of knowledge.

Final note (read: quiz)
If that was to be a proper journal article, what kind of referencing errors did you find in this post?

Edit (1st March, 7:14pm): Mr zu Guttenberg stepped down today because of the scandal over his thesis.

American Psychological Association. (2009). Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

German Defence Minister Guttenberg resigns over thesis (2011, March 1). BBC News. Retrieved from

German minister loses doctorate after plagiarism row (2011, February 24). BBC News. Retrieved from

GuttenPlagWiki. (n.d.). Wikia. Retrieved from

Purdue OWL. (n.d.). Paraphrase: Write it In Your Own Words. Purdue University. Retrieved from:

Vainre, M. (2010, December 15). How to avoid Mistakes in APA Style? [Web log post]. Retrieved from

About the author

Maris Vainre