Referencing, plagiarism and building credibility

Plagiarism is a big deal in academia. As students we are told often what a terrible thing it is to plagiarise the work or ideas of others, and that if we do plagiarise we could face serious penalties. Academics have lost jobs, status and reputations over plagiarism – in South Africa there was a famous case in 2007 of ‘Chippy’ Shaik having his PhD degree rescinded as a result of allegedly plagiarising 2/3 of it, and in 2013, Dr Jane Goodall was accused of lifting several passages verbatim or near verbatim from other sources in a book that is scheduled to appear this year. Even outside of academia, cases of plagiarism are taken very seriously – US Senator Rand Paul and Transformers actor Shia Lebouf have both been accused of using the words and ideas of others and passing them off as their own without crediting the original sources.

Plagiarism is not just copying verbatim the words or ideas of others and passing them off as your own. Even when you summarise, paraphrase or incorporate the ideas of others in your own work without citing the original source, you are regarded as a plagiarist. Plagiarism is generally defined as the intentional or reckless use of the words and ideas of others, rather than unintentional or accidental actions, but the burden of proof about intentions is often on the student – how do you show that, if you did plagiarise, you did so accidentally rather than on purpose? One way you could do this is by showing your ‘paper trail’ – all your notes, and reference lists and planning that went into your writing. But this is a hassle, and it’s by far easier to do what you can to avoid plagiarism altogether by keeping track of all your source material, and by working hard on developing your own voice in your writing.

But, for a PhD student, this is not as simple as it may sound for a couple of reasons. The first, big reason, is that as PhD students we read a lot. We read and read and read, we make a lot of notes, and after a while these ideas become part of our own ideas, and the theory we are influenced by and that ‘gels’ with the way we see our research or the world around us really influences how we think. It starts to become difficult to tell our own ideas pre-reading apart from our ideas post-reading. We can, after a while, write 3 or 4 or 5 pages of a ‘literature review’ without even needing to consult a reference. This is how well you end up knowing your stuff. This is a good thing – as a PhD student you need to know your stuff that well. But, the downside is that you have to be really careful not to plagiarise. Which ideas are yours and which are the ideas of other authors and researchers whose work has influenced your own? Which ideas do you have to reference and which ones can you claim as your own?

The second, connected reason, is that avoiding plagiarism and being an honest and ethical writer and researcher is about more than just including references in the text and in a bibliography. If you copy your whole literature review piece by piece and reference it perfectly, you really are still committing a form of plagiarism, and you’re not doing your own research either. Being an honest and ethical writer and researcher requires an understanding of knowledge, and how it is built, debated, challenged and changed in academic communities of practice and research. We build when we research and write – we build on the ideas of others, on their research, on their data, on their methodologies and on their words. We join conversations, and we debate, challenge, dispute, agree and slowly establish our own voice and our own ideas, claims and positions which we hope (and fear) that others will challenge us on. So, even if the idea is also yours (and the writers’ you are citing), referencing well does more than just help you to avoid plagiarism; it helps you to establish the credibility of your voice, your ideas and your developing argument. This is essential for writing a credible and acceptable dissertation, and for ensuring that you do actually get full credit for your own ideas and arguments. If you reference poorly, lose sources and get sloppy, you risk being accused of plagiarism, you risk being discredited and you risk shortchanging yourself on your own intellectual development and growth.

I used two simple tools to help me: One was the P(oint), E(vidence), E(xplanation) paragraph writing structure, which helped me to ensure that I started and ended each paragraph with my own ‘voice’ and included accurately cited and referenced ‘Evidence’ to support my ‘Points’ and ‘Explanation’. As a tool it can be adapted and played with and it really works. The other was a bit techno-backwards, but I kept a manual list in separate file of all the sources I was using as I wrote. I cross-checked this regularly. I had it open whenever I was working on part of a chapter and I copied across the in-text references either at the end of a section or as I wrote, depending on how well or smoothly the writing was going. I regularly went into this list and filled in all the information I needed, and reorganised, cut and added as I went. I know I could have used Refworks, Endnote, Mendeley or other similar tools, but I actually found the effort of learning to use these tools effectively too much for my already-taxed brain. I trusted my system, and that gave me peace of mind. (I don’t think I left out any references, but frankly I am not going back to find out!)

Any tool you use, whether un-technological one like mine or more automated like Refworks etc, is only as good as the person using it. These tools can’t do your writing for you, or make sure you don’t plagiarise or leave references out of your reference list (or leave too many in after chapters get cut). They can’t do the work of developing your voice. But, learning to use particular tools, whichever ones work for you, can save you a lot of time and reduce your anxiety about keeping track of your sources as your PhD progresses. And using these tools to help you reference accurately can also help you show your reader your emerging voice that much more clearly as you write.

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