Perhaps you’ve experienced it. You did your research and handed in your project, only to have it returned with the teacher’s question, “Are these your own words?” written across the top in red ink. You thought they were! You had taken good notes, you thought, and been careful with accuracy in your final project.
Chances are, though, that your teacher may have a point. There are many traps that we can fall into when doing research, and sometimes that means that we plagiarize quite unintentionally. Here’s some advice on how to avoid those traps, and make sure that your research and your words are indeed yours and yours alone.
Top Tips for Avoiding Unintentional Plagiarism
Be Aware of Language
When you read your information text, be aware of how language is used. Is what you are reading fact or someone’s opinion? What are the hard facts buried beneath descriptive language? Are you getting confused by the metaphors that the author is using? Any of these traps can lead to you copying others’ ideas unintentionally. Here are some tips to sharpen your researcher’s language radar.
|Your Language Radar||Check For…||Example|
|Fact or Opinion?||Be on the lookout for opinion words. You may want to quote or paraphrase an opinion, but don’t be fooled into taking these ideas as cold hard facts.
Words / phrases for your language radar: seemingly, clearly, undoubtedly, predictably, unbelievably
|Consider this sentence:
Clearly, the Prime Minister had no intention to recall Parliament.
For your notes: The word clearly should be on your radar as an opinion word. You can choose to paraphrase or quote this sentence, or to discard it. It does not contain factual information.
|Factual or Descriptive?||Writers often use descriptive language to help make their point. Record only the facts in your notes, not the author’s descriptive phrases. Suss out the cold, hard facts, and record these in your notes.||Consider this sentence: The soldiers marched relentlessly to their destination, and covered five kilometers in less than one hour.
Cold hard facts for your notes:
– soldiers reached destination in under one hour
|Metaphor||Writers often use metaphors, similes, personification or other literary devices to help readers picture their intent. Look for these devices, and find the cold hard facts in the passage.||Consider this sentence: The scientists were watchful midwives at the birth of an island.
Cold hard facts for your notes:
– scientists closely observed island’s formation
Be Aware of Bias
Information from some of your sources may express a strong point of view, or bias. If you are looking for the cold, hard facts, this might get in your way. Be on the lookout for words or phrases that exaggerate, overgeneralize, are prejudiced, or seem to present opinions as facts.
Consider the Sentence: Teenagers are so irresponsible these days! This sentence overgeneralizes, demonstrates prejudice against an identifiable group, and seems to represent a strong opinion as a fact. Beware of using this information in your research notes!
On the other hand, it is your responsibility as a researcher to explore different points of view about your topic, particularly if the topic is controversial. In this case, including a biased statement may be appropriate, but you must cite your source, whether you include a direct quote or paraphrase.
Consider the Sentence: Just like it has become cool to bring your own cloth bags to the grocery store and your own mug to the coffee shop, the reusable water bottle is the hip, new eco accessory. (M. Knopper. Bottled Water Backlash, E Magazine, 2008). The sentence clearly expresses an opinion. This opinion may move your argument forward, or represent a particular point of view. You may choose to paraphrase or quote this passage, but be sure to include a proper citation.
Keep Track of Your Sources
No matter whether you are recording facts, paraphrasing or quoting, always keep track of your sources. You are responsible for knowing where you found your information. Use this website to help you with note-taking, quoting and paraphrasing, and citation formats.