If there is one issue with which you are likely at least somewhat familiar, it is plagiarism. That said, although many students have heard the term “plagiarism” most are unclear exactly what plagiarism really is and why the issue is taken so seriously in academe and the scientific profession as whole. In this section, we’ll discuss plagiarism and outline some useful strategies you can implement today in order to prevent problems now and in the future.

Stories of incidents involving plagiarism abound on most college campuses. The development of the internet and the ability afforded by computers and computer technology to copy and paste from written documents has no doubt exascerbated the problem of plagiarism. At the same time however, computer technology has proven useful in facilitating the detection of plagiarism, too. A good example of this was described in 2000 in the Chronicle of Higher Education in an article written by Julianne Basinger. Then freshman Seth Weitberg was doing research on the internet about education. Seth noticed that the text of a paper allegedly written by Mr. Scott D. Miller, President of Wesley College (Delaware), was markedly similar in content and form to that of a speech written eight years earlier by Claire Gaudiani, President of Connecticut College and e-mailed both Mr. Miller and Ms. Gaudiani concerning his observation. Subsequently, irregularities were also observed in a biography of Mr. Miller that appeared on the Wesley College website. Links to the original papers and a side-by-side comparison of a number of excerpts from the two papers can be found in the Chronicle of Higher Education article.

In a more recent article appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Assistant Professor of Political Science Kim Lanegran describes her own poignant brush with plagiarism from the perspective of the victim. Shortly after defending her dissertation, Dr. Lanegran received a telephone call from a doctoral student at another university who had read one of her publications and was interested in whether Dr. Lanegran had written any other papers on the same topic. Excited by the interest of a fellow student in her work, Dr. Lanegran copied her dissertation onto a diskette and mailed it to the student. Three years later, she obtained a copy of the student’s dissertation through interlibrary loan and was shocked to discover that much of it was taken word for word from her dissertation and that her work was not credited anywhere in the volume. Subsequently, Dr. Lanegran contacted the student’s graduate school with evidence that the dissertation was plagiarized and the student’s Ph.D. was quietly withdrawn. The incident shook her to her core. She describes the impact of it in her Chronicle of Higher Education article as having “nearly defeated me, shaking my faith in academe’s core values as well as my ability to turn my students into honest scholars.”

Plagiarism is defined by the National Science Foundation’s Office of Science and Technology as “the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit, including those obtained through confidential review of others’ research proposals and manuscripts.” Plagiarism is fundamentally an issue relating to intellectual property and is grounded in the fundamental idea that words represent ideas which are a form of intellectual property and that the unique expression of those ideas in written format belongs to and is owned by the person who expressed them. Consequently, it isn’t acceptable to copy phrases (short groups of words), sentences, paragraphs, or whole articles written by another person or group of people.

If indeed someone believes it is necessary to use that person’s words in order to accurately and adequately convey the ideas involved, then it is necessary to do two things:

  1. Place all of the words taken from the original work within quotation marks;
  2. Cite the original published work(s) in your bibliography.

There is a specific format to use when citing other people’s original work, no matter the form (technical report, communication, journal article, meeting abstract, etc.) or medium of the communication (book, journal, webpage, personal communication, etc.). The specific format requirements are unique to each scientific/engineering field or discipline and/or technical journal and vary widely even within a field. Today, there are many computer programs available today to assist you in preparing correctly formatted bibliographies. Examples of some of the more commonly used programs are:

Many colleges, universities, and companies provide students and employees with access to one or more of these bibliographic programs on their computer networks. Consult your Information Systems and/or college/university library personnel to find out whether or not you may have access to one or more of these programs. If not, as a student you may be able to purchase the software either at your bookstore or on-line at a reduced academic rate (with proof that you are currently enrolled full-time as a student in a degree-granting program).

Ignorance Is Not A Valid Excuse for Plagiarism

Sometimes students unwittingly plagiarize. A common mistake many people make when they read something and don’t understand what they have read is that they copy down the writer’s words with the intent of later changing the language. Unfortunately, later never arrives. Most people simply forget that the words jotted in their notes aren’t their own. In this case ignorance is not bliss nor is it a legitimate excuse for plagiarizing. A better idea is to simply commit to always use your own words when you write anything. If you don’t understand something and feel compelled to copy the author’s words down, then place them within quotation marks so you know that these words aren’t your own and be sure to include the citation for the original work so you won’t have to struggle later to try to identify the original source.

If you find that you are having a difficult time expressing your thoughts clearly using your own words, then this is likely a sign that you really don’t understand the concept as well as you think that you do. If you don’t understand something you are reading, discuss it with your advisor, other teachers, or peers. When you think you understand the concept, write it down in your own words and again consult your advisor, teachers, etc. if you are concerned whether you have expressed the new ideas accurately or not.


Sometimes people will substitute one or more words in a sentence or longer section of another person’s work which retains the original author’s sentence structure, organization of thoughts and ideas without proper attribution of the work borrowed. This is called paraphrasing and is widely regarded as a form of plagiarism. It is not an acceptable practice in the science and engineering professions.

Summary of Useful Guidelines for Writing

  • Always use your own words when you write;
  • If you must use someone else’s words, place them within quotation marks and cite the original work in your bibliography; and
  • When you write about facts that are the ideas or work of others, cite, cite, cite!


J. Basinger. (2000) Chronicle of Higher Education. May 19. “The Similarities of 2 Presidents’ Papers.” Avail. URL: http://chronicle.com/weekly/v46/i37/37a05001.htm
K. Lanegran. (2003) Chronicle of Higher Education. July 2. “Fending Off a Plagiarist.” Avail. URL: http://chronicle.com/weekly/v50/i43/43c00101.htm