Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Plagiarism in Non-Fiction

As a university professor, plagiarism was never far away from my sights.  I talked about it, warned about it and, alas, had to take action because of it.

What I did find to be the case many times, though, was plagiarism was a sin of omission.  What do I mean by this?  Simply stated, some students didn’t know enough about plagiarism not to do it.

To that end, I’m sharing what I hope will be of value to those of you in the blogosphere who enjoy writing non-fiction but want to be accurate while doing so.  In the interest of non-plagiarism, the illustrations I’ve written below are taken from the University of Indiana’s Writing Center, Bloomington.  This is one of the best examples I’ve seen for modeling how not to plagiarize. 

Here’s the ORIGINAL text, from page 1 of Lizzie Borden: A Case Book of Family and Crime in the 1890s by Joyce Williams et al.:

The rise of industry, the growth of cities, and the expansion of the population were the three great developments of late nineteenth century American history. As new, larger, steam-powered factories became a feature of the American landscape in the East, they transformed farm hands into industrial laborers, and provided jobs for a rising tide of immigrants. With industry came urbanization the growth of large cities (like Fall River, Massachusetts, where the Bordens lived) which became the centers of production as well as of commerce and trade.

Here’s an UNACCEPTABLE paraphrase that is plagiarism:

The increase of industry, the growth of cities, and the explosion of the population were three large factors of nineteenth century America. As steam-driven companies became more visible in the eastern part of the country, they changed farm hands into factory workers and provided jobs for the large wave of immigrants. With industry came the growth of large cities like Fall River where the Bordens lived which turned into centers of commerce and trade as well as production.

Why is the paraphrase above unacceptable?  The writer has only changed around a few words and phrases, or changed the order of the original’s sentences.  The writer has failed to cite a source for any of the ideas or facts.

Below is an unacceptable paraphrase:

Fall River, where the Borden family lived, was typical of northeastern industrial cities of the nineteenth century. Steam-powered production had shifted labor from agriculture to manufacturing, and as immigrants arrived in the US, they found work in these new factories. As a result, populations grew, and large urban areas arose. Fall River was one of these manufacturing and commercial centers (Williams 1).
Why is the paraphrase above acceptable?
  1. The writer accurately relays the information in the original
    uses her own words.
  2. The writer lets his/her reader know the source of her information.

I hope this post helps with the thorny dilemma of plagiarism.  Remember, when writing non-fiction, research is paramount.  But when gaining information from that research, be sure to do your due diligence around plagiarism, too.  It will keep you legally safe and allow you to write your wonderful non-fiction book without worry!

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