Rev. Isaac Boaheng
Posted 24th August 2020
The advancement in technology in contemporary times has many advantages in all areas of human life, including improved health care delivery, improved transport system, improved communication and improved trade, to mention but a few. However, technology has disadvantages too. In a technological age where a researcher may sit in the room and use online resources such as library books, journal articles, magazines, newspapers and others at the same time, it is very tempting for the researcher to copy and paste or copy, edit and paste a work obtained from the internet. That is fast and easy! Isn’t it? Certainly YES! Yet, is such a way of conducting research acceptable and ethical within the academic community? One key area that needs special attention is any discussion on scholarly ethics is the issue of plagiarism, the subject of this write up.
What is Plagiarism?
To plagiarize means to steal someone’s intellectual property and present it as yours. Plagiarism also means the “wrongful attempt to pass off another person’s literary or musical work as one’s own; the act of copying without permission or acknowledgment” (Garmonsway, cited in Smith 2009:72). In other words, plagiarism refers to the use of ideas, information, or expression that does not originate from the researcher and yet the researcher fails to give credit to the original author(s). Plagiarism also refers to adopting or reproducing people’s opinions, words, or statements in one’s work without acknowledging the source(s) properly. Plagiarism poses a very serious challenge to academic institutions. It is a serious offense, constituting stealing and deceit or a breach of trust. It may be either intentional or unintentional. Whether intentional or unintentional, plagiarism is a punishable offense. Therefore, one does not have to act intentionally to plagiarize. Plagiarism may result from carelessness, ignorance, or the desire to have short-cut research. Ignorance can however not be an excuse when plagiarism is detected. That is why researchers need to familiarize themselves with issues of plagiarism.
Plagiarism may be classified as cheating, non-attribution and patchwork writing. Cheating is a deliberate act, non-attribution is usually due to inexperience of the research regarding referencing, while patchwork (as the name suggests) involves bringing together pieces of information from different sources without referencing these sources.
What Constitute Plagiarism?
No answer to this question can be exhaustive. However, this paper provides key circumstances that constitute plagiarism based on documents consulted on the subject. Plagiarism occurs when a writer:
- Copies and pastes text from a website or document and use it for his or her work without acknowledging its source.
- References an author’s exact words without quotation marks. In this case the current writer deceives his/her readers by making someone’s words appear as being paraphrased, which is not the case.
- Mentions an idea without connecting it to the source.
- Uses the same sentence structure as the original source and replaces some of the words. This constitutes plagiarism even if he or she cites the source because “the thought and expression of the thought are not original with” him or her.
- Uses his or her own ideas or words which have been published already as if they are new. This is known as self-plagiarism.
- Paraphrases, summarizes, or quotes a text without acknowledging the original author.
- Uses statistics, research, or graphics that are not common knowledge without citing the source.
What does not constitute Plagiarism?
Not all materials are to be referenced to avoid plagiarism. The following do not need to be referenced. First, the writer’s own words, ideas, findings, evaluation of other people’s thoughts and original research need not be cited. When the writer upon reflecting on his/her research comes out with new ideas or draws figures and tables from his/her research no referencing is needed. There is no need for referencing conclusions/summaries that contain formerly cited ideas.
Second, common knowledge does not need to be referenced. This includes: (1) facts that are found in a significant number of sources. For example, Methodism was introduced in Ghana in 1835 or COVID-19 is a global crisis; (2) observable world phenomena. For example, people drink more water during the dry season than the rainy season; (3) general descriptions of social customs, traditions. For example, Ghanaians put on black clothing when mourning; (4) popular sayings such as “two heads are better than one.”
Why should researchers avoid Plagiarism?
Plagiarism must be avoided for at least these five reasons.
- Plagiarism is a sin against God and humanity.
- It deprives someone of the ability to think independently.
- It does not help the researcher to develop problem-solving skills.
- It does encourage a proper understanding of the subject matter of research.
- It is a punishable offense. Its punishment may range from warning, failure of a paper, suspension, to expulsion” from ones institution.
How to avoid plagiarism
The following steps can be taken to reduce the tendency of plagiarizing.
- Ensure proper referencing of all sources used in your work by attribution (making off other people’s ideas) and documentation (indicating the source of these ideas).
- Take your time to read many materials around your research topic so as to have a clear understanding of the subject before attempting to write your papers. One is likely to fall into the pitfall of plagiarism if he/she doesn’t have enough understanding of what he or she is reading.
- Work ahead of time so that you may not be tempted to plagiarize due to pressure. This means one has to make a schedule for his or her research and stick to the plan.
- Avoid plagiarism that results from ignorance by reading more materials dealing with the practise.
- Carefully take note of all the details for each source as you work so that you can compile a complete bibliography/reference list.
- It is also important to ask your supervisor or another academic when one is not sure whether or not a particular practice constitutes plagiarism.
- One can also use online resources (plagiarism-checking software) to check a paper before submitting it.
Sir Isaac Newton once wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” This statement underscores the need to build scholarly ideas through interaction with other scholars. This article is not meant to discourage people from standing upon the shoulders of other people. Rather, it argues that credit must be given to whoever it is due. Whenever one’s idea is used the source must be acknowledged. As a researcher, I am fully aware that plagiarism can be committed innocently. However, whether deliberate or not it is an unacceptable practice in academia. One, therefore, has to take all possible precautions to avoid this unethical practice.
Neville C 2010. From The Complete Guide to Referencing and Avoiding Plagiarism 2nd edition.Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Smith KG 2009. Academic Writing and Theological Research: A Guide for Students. Johannesburg: South African Theological Seminary Press.
This article is published with the kind courtesy of the author—Isaac Boaheng (Rev.), an ordained minister of the Methodist Church Ghana, a Master of divinity graduate of the Trinity Theological Seminary, Legon Accra -Ghana and a Translator with the Bible Society of Ghana.