Intelligent Note-taking: One Key to Avoiding Plagiarism
Following careful note-taking techniques is the best way to avoid accidental plagiarism. So, as with many things in life, a good foundation will save you from misery later on.
What Can Go Wrong?
- If you just write things down in your notes without quotation marks around direct quotes from the text, you have no way of knowing which words are your own, or which are quotes from the source.
- Sloppy note-taking can lead to a situation where although you know you start with a quote, you have no idea where the quote ends.
- You may end up moving your notes around and lose track of which author wrote which words.
- You may end up with a final draft of your paper but not have all of the bibliographical data.
- You might have downloaded something from the Web but not know where it came from.
What to Do When Taking Notes and Doing Research
- Develop a system that you always use when note-taking. This system should always identify quotations with quotation marks at the beginning and at the end of the quotation. It should also have a marker to indicate when you have summarized or paraphrased an idea (it could be red brackets with a “P” or an “S” to indicate this), and show (perhaps by writing inside the kind of circle you see in comic-books to indicate speech) when you, yourself, are making a comment on or have an idea inspired by the text.
- When taking notes and paraphrasing an idea, look away from the source, write your paraphrase, check back to ensure that you have not used the original words, then mark your paraphrase to indicate that it is in your own words. You will still need to provide the accurate reference citation for the idea, so write down all of the bibliographical material right then and there, including page numbers.
- Mark the reference information and page number beside each paragraph or notation you make. This way, if you cut out a paragraph and move it to another section you won’t lose the origin of the words.
- Again, remember to note down all bibliographic details if you are photocopying. Don’t ever cut off page numbers.
- Keep a separate reference or bibliographical list on one page or in a computer file with all the information you could possibly need about your source. (It wouldn’t even hurt to list the library call number, if there is one. That way, if you need to revisit the text it will be easier. And if you print out a hard copy of your references, you won’t be in trouble if your computer file gets lost.)
- Find out what reference system your professor wants you to use before you begin to research. Then, when you are making your notes, you can write your references in the correct pattern from the beginning.
- Avoid waiting until your final draft to insert citations into your text. Students often get into this bad habit, thinking they will insert them later. But later, when you are polishing your draft, it is easy to forget where you need a citation, or even if you remember, you might not be able to think which author your text came from originally.
What You Should Do When You Begin to Write
- Never cut and paste text to create a paper from several quoted sources, supplying only your own introduction and conclusion. This is a patchwork quilt, not an essay. It is, however, a common and helpful practice to assemble all of your information into sections while you are doing your research and planning, always making sure that when you separate and file each piece of information it has the citation information attached. So, if you are using card files, or photocopies from articles, or computer printouts, place them in file folders labelled with the names of each of the sections of your paper. Or you can create separate folders in your computer files. This way you are beginning to shape your paper even before you begin to write.
- Make an outline (or if you are constitutionally incapable of outlining, write a short draft with an overview of your paper). Use this as a guide to the logical path your argument will take. This way, the overarching ideas of your paper will be your own, and they will guide what you write. Your ideas will be in the spotlight, and although you will be integrating the ideas of others, their ideas will be at the service of your argument, not vice-versa. (This is how you make the paper unique, with your own “voice,” rather than a simple repetition of other people’s ideas on the subject.)
- Try to use your own language in most of the paper. It will read more logically than a few words or sentences framing a series of long quotations. In the sciences, of course, quotations are rarely if ever used, and you will have to summarize the findings of other researchers in your own words. Even in the arts, where quotations are much more frequent, especially when you are referring to primary sources, much of the time you will be reporting what other secondary sources have said.
- Use quotations only when the idea could not be said in a better way, when the quotation fits in smoothly with your own reasoning, and when the author of the quote is a acknowledged authority on the subject. Otherwise, paraphrase or summarize.
- When using quotations, integrate them seamlessly into your own text, so that if you were reading them out loud, nothing would be jerky.
- Never throw a quotation into your text without introducing it first. This is a common problem for novice writers, especially in a discipline such as English Literature.
- Don’t rely too heavily on a single source in a research paper. There are two problems here. One is that you will fail to write an adequate and informed academic paper, and the other is that, in an attempt to disguise the fact that your work is so dependent on a single source, you are much more likely to be tempted to plagiarize
- It’s a good idea to save the rough drafts of your papers, along with your research notes. That way, if there is any suspicion of plagiarism, you will have the evidence to convince your instructor that you wrote the paper on your own. It’s also advisable to keep a hard copy of your paper as well, just in case the computer file is lost
Here is an Academic Integrity Student Checklist you can use as a reminder.
Adapted from Avoiding Plagiarism by University of Guelph, Academic Integrity.This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Sources on avoiding plagiarism
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