On plagiarism…

text with citations

text with citations

As one of odd jobs and chores I do part-time (i.e. when I am not thesising…), I assist in editing articles for a publication of McGill University. It is something I thoroughly enjoy doing, partly because I get to work with words, and, frankly, what better job is there than getting paid to read articles that may very well contain material helpful to my own research?

My job consists of going through articles that have been approved by the editorial board, and looking for spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, contradictions in the arguments, and generally polishing up articles to make sure they are publishable and reader-friendly. A great deal of the time is spent poring over footnotes and citations to check whether the referencing is sufficiently done and done according to the correct format. And in some cases, much time is spent making sure that references are added where they appear to be lacking.

I remember the very first day I entered university, my lecturers hammered into our heads that anything you write (or draw or present through any means imaginable) should be as original as possible. If it is not, cite it, reference it, refer to a source from where you got the idea from, but by no means should you ever try to pass an idea, a sentence, an opinion as if it were your own when (you know that) it is not. In academia and scholarship, there is no more heinous crime than that of plagiarism.

Under the university’s own Handbook on Student Rights and Responsibilities, it is clearly stated that:

No student shall, with intent to deceive, represent the work of another person as his or her own in any academic writing, essay, thesis, research report, project or assignment submitted in a course or program of study or represent as his or her own an entire essay or work of another, whether the material so represented constitutes a part or the entirety of the work submitted.

(Aha, the astute reader will note the above quote has been cited and referenced!) Of course, given that many topics and subject matters have already been researched on or written about, it is difficult to come up with truly innovative and ingenious ideas or ways of expressing them. Citing other authors, referencing differing opinions and sources, contrasting different ideas does not make you appear like you have nothing to contribute. Instead, it shows you have carefully researched the topic and are able to navigate the field fully aware of what is out there, with the hope that you are able to draw conclusions of your own that is solid and well supported. You may think you are not able to write well or become the next Noble laureate, but most important of all, and whatever you do, “keep it honest”!

It may be too easy to dismiss plagiarism as something only a ‘newbie’ undergrad might engage in. But from experience reviewing articles for the publication, believe me when I say you would be shocked and appalled that even renowned scholars and seasoned practitioners in the field can be guilty of copying and pasting (or in computer lingo, “Ctrl+c” and “Ctrl+v”). One such instance was an article which basically was pieced together from press releases, resolutions and speeches, with here and there a comma or a full stop added to cosmetically make the “article” (if it can be labelled as such) legible and carry the air of an original scholarly text.  Of course, the piece was outrightly rejected and electronically binned in the end.

With the software available today, or even with the simple click of an online search engine, words, written in the exact same order or even ideas, represented in more or less the same fashion, can be easily rooted out. Not only will taking other people’s work and making it your own make you a thief, it will undermine your credibility as a budding scholar, damage your integrity as a person, and one day the bad karma may even return to haunt you in ways unimaginable (like a former German minister recently experienced…).

McGill takes plagiarism seriously, and so should any and every current and  aspiring McGillite!

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