Sunday, 1 May 2011

Beware of the P word: plagiarism!

Every year I ask my students at college to write a short paper on a given topic and each time we do this, we need to tackle the question of plagiarism and discuss proper ways of citing sources. This is a problem in Argentina, because we are never taught to do it at school. Students copy and paste information without bothering to cite the source. Sometimes, even teachers distribute handouts and materials without acknowledging the source. So when students get to college and have to write essays, they need to acquire the habit of citing and actually learn when and how to do it. This is a simple guide I’ve written for my students but there’s lots of information on the web (links recommended at the end).

Learning when and how to include references and quotations in your writing is an indispensable skill in academic life. Including references is an important part of your writing, not only because failing to cite the source of your ideas may be considered cheating and penalized as such (remember there are codes of practice that aim at protecting intellectual property), but also because a good command of this skill will help you in two main ways:

(1)  It shows the amount and quality of your research, indicating the reader that you know the     subject matter and that you have chosen relevant and appropriate materials.
(2)  It indicates how you developed your own position by supporting or challenging others.

To cite or not to cite: that is the question

The first important thing you need to learn is when to cite. The general rule is: when you are referring to something that is considered common knowledge in your field, you don’t need to cite. If, on the other hand, you are referring to an analysis developed by someone with specialist knowledge on the topic, you do need to cite. When you are quoting verbatim, you always have to cite. Let’s see some examples:

If you are studying Linguistics and in your paper you refer to Universal Grammar (UG) and you say something like, “we assume a set of principles that are common to all natural languages”, this is common knowledge to anybody with an elementary knowledge of UG (and if you are writing an essay on Linguistics, we can assume your audience will have this kind of elementary acquaintance with the subject matter). Therefore, you don’t need to cite.

However, if you mention the fact that “in Welsh there is no morphosyntactic marker of inherent genitive”, you are definetely referring to a specialized analysis carried out by someone in particular, which is not common knowledge to the majority of your audience, therefore you do have to cite the source.

Finally, if you want to use the exact words used by the original author -either because you need the voice of an accepted authority to reinforce your ideas or because you want to avoid misinterpretation of the original material- you always have to acknowledge the source.

Now, sometimes you may have doubts as to whether the information you are citing is common knowledge or not (where to draw the line is precisely one of the most difficult things to learn). So when in doubt, cite. You won’t be penalized for citing too much, but failing to credit ideas is considered serious misconduct.

How to cite in the running text

There is not only one way of quoting and referencing academic work but several styles, although in general we aim at consistency of style within a given field. I will briefly discuss the APA (American Psychological Association) style, which is commonly used in Linguistics (you will find links to references manuals of other styles at the end of the text).

The APA style is widely used in Psychology and the Social Sciences. It follows the author-date system, i.e. when you cite in the running text, you must include the surname of the author and the year of publication of the cited work. If you are quoting verbatim, you must add the page number where that specific sentence is to be found. All sources cited are found in the References section at the end of the paper, where they are listed alphabetically. In this style, footnotes are used to provide information that is not essential to the text, not to provide references. Some examples:

One or two authors:

White (1986) hypothesized that second language learners initially adopt the L1 parameter value.

Some studies are consistent with the claim that the L1 value is the first value adopted but that it can be reset later (White, 1986).

Dulay and Burt (1974) found a common accuracy order in the production of a set of grammatical morphemes of Chinese and Spanish speaking children.

It was thought that a set of “universal cognitive mechanisms” (Dulay & Burt 1974:52) applies to both native and nonnative language acquisition. Note that 52 is the page number here.

Schachter claimed that “one’s knowledge of the L1 has as much influence on the learning of an unrelated second language as on the learning of a related one” (Schachter, 1975, cited in Schwartz, 1995:17). You haven’t actually read Schachter; you are citing something that Schawrtz cited.

Three, four or five authors:

Further research has drawn attention to the fact that these structures emerge gradually based on input (Clashen, Eisenbeiβ & Vainikka, 1994). First time you mention them.

This author takes a position similar to that of Clashen et al. (1994). Subsiquent citations.

Quotations of more than three lines should be indented as a separate paragraph, with no quotation marks and usually in a smaller font size. An example:

Whilst one may suppose that the first language learner has an unlimited number of hypotheses about the nature of the language he is learning which must be tested (although strong reasons have been put forward for doubting this) we may certainly take it that the task of the second language learner is a simpler one: that the only hypotheses that he needs to test are: ‘Are the systems of the new language the same or different from those of the language I know’ ‘And if different, what is their nature?’ (Corder, 1967:168)

How to build your Reference List

All sources cited in the text must be listed alphabetically in the References section at the end of the paper (if there is more than one reference by the same author, order these chronologically). This list must include books, articles, academic papers (published or unpublished), websites and any other kind of source that you’ve consulted and cited when writing your paper.

What should be included:

- Author’s surname
- Author’s first name or initial (but be consistent!)
- Year of publication
- Title of article or book
- Place
- Publisher

o    If the reference is a book, thesis or dissertation, italicise.

Chomsky, N. (1965) Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

o    If the reference is an article in a journal, use plain style for the title of the article and italics for the title of the journal. You must also give the volume number and the page numbers.

Anderson, S. (1982) Where is Morphology? Linguistic Inquiry 13:571-612.

o    If the reference is an article in a book, you must provide the full reference of that book: name of the editor, title of the book (in italics), volume number (if applicable) and page numbers.

Chomsky, N. (1993) A Minimalist Program for Linguistic Theory. In K. Hale and S. J.  Keyser (eds.) The View from Building 20. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. pp 1-52.

o    If the reference is an unpublished thesis or a manuscript, say so and provide the name of the relevant institution.

Schwartz, B. D. (1987) The Modular Basis of Second Language Acquisition. Unpublished Ph. D. dissertation. University of Southern California.

o    If the reference is an article from an online journal, provide as much information as you can (author, name of the journal, URL and retrieval date).

Jacobsen, J.W. (2001) A history of facilitated communication. American Psychologist, 50(2): 750-752. Retrieved August 25, 2001, from http// jacobsen.html

There are a few online tools that you may find useful when compiling your Reference List. For example, you can build your list, save it and adapt your references to the citation style of your choice. You might want to try one of these:

Find out more

Questions and comments welcome!



  1. Much needed post Bárbara. Few EFL teachers initiatie this kind of conversation in blog posts.

    I've added this post to my resources wiki page about
    Legal and Copyright Issues

    Glad to meet you online!
    Twitter: @fceblog

  2. Thanks Claudia! Glad to meet you too!