Referencing (or how to avoid plagiarizing)…

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One thing I encounter consistently and frequently, from undergrads right up to PhD students, is general confusion about properly referencing source material. Whether it be an assignment, conference presentation, or term paper – students repeatedly present photos, graphs, tables, prose, and concepts painstakingly collected and/or developed by others, with absolutely no acknowledgements to the people who actually own that intellectual property. These students don’t (all) intentionally plagiarise, they just don’t seem to realize that copying the thoughts, ideas, or products of someone else’s efforts actually constitutes plagiarism. So if you’re a college or university student, read on and learn how to get it right…  

What constitutes plagiarism? Here’s what my own employer, the University of Alberta, says under section 30.3.2(1) of the Code of Student Behaviour:

“No Student shall submit the words, ideas, images or data of another person as the Student’s own in any academic writing, essay, thesis, project, assignment, presentation or poster in a course or program of study.”

This seems pretty clear to me but for some reason students seem to be completely baffled by it. So over the years I’ve developed my own explanation for the students:

“If you didn’t invent/create it and you weren’t born knowing it – then you MUST reference it.”

Specifically, if you don’t reference it, then you are claiming it as your own and that is plagiarism.

Here below are some common examples of where referencing is required – ones that students commonly forget (or don’t bother to) reference properly. The most common justifications typically offered by students follow in brackets.

  • Paraphrased information (“…but I wasn’t’ quoting him, just summarizing.”)
  • Graphs (“I didn’t know plagiarism included graphs.”)
  • Photos (“…but they were on the web!”)

Let me reiterate – if you didn’t create it and you weren’t born knowing it, then you must reference it. Otherwise, it is plagiarism and that is an academic offence. It doesn’t need to be a quote – even ideas are intellectual property. Depending upon the severity of the case – the following penalties can be expected for plagiarism:

  • Zero on the assignment or project
  • Failure in the course
  • Dean’s holiday (i.e. expulsion for up to a year)
  • Expulsion forever
  • Rescindment of your degree (Yes, you can be punished for plagiarism retroactively!)

Most cases of plagiarism that I encounter stem from ignorance of what constitutes plagiarism and/or laziness about keeping track of sources. If this describes your situation, then today is the day to change all that. Here are some examples to help you get started.

  • If you use a quote from a textbook or paraphrase some comments from an article – cite the author(s) and year of publication and provide the full reference citation in a list of references at the end of your assignment, paper, presentation, or poster.
  • Before you use someone else’s photograph, graph or table in your thesis, conference presentation or poster, report, or scholarly paper – you must first ask for and obtain written permission and you must also acknowledge the source where it appears in your document. You don’t usually need to obtain written permission to use these items in a course assignment, project, or presentation – but you do still need to cite the source and provide details in a proper list of references at the end.
  • The original source of any equations you present or use must also be cited and referenced.

What about stuff you get off the web? Well, my response would be to ask you, “What the heck are you doing getting your scholarly material off the web?” Anyone can post any manner of nonsense on the web – that doesn’t make it fact. Your sources should be genuine, peer-reviewed academic papers, textbooks, reports, and theses. The only exception to this that comes to mind is that you may be presenting data from a government website; in that case you should provide the web link right with the cited data (it doesn’t go in the list of references). Other than that, I would suggest you avoid using the web for reference material – graduate students in particular: you’re not going to impress anybody by surfing the web instead of the library for your source material.

What do you do if your source is a paper, graph or concept cited by another author (not the original author)? This commonly happens when using textbooks and journal papers as reference material. The scholarly thing to do it to go and look up the original reference – yes, it takes time – but the truth is, just reading about it in a subsequent summary is seldom enough to understand it adequately (especially if you are a graduate student writing a paper or thesis). In fact, many people interpret things incorrectly (or with a small measure of personal bias) and if you don’t go back to the original reference, you may end up perpetuating an erroneous interpretation of that original work. So, you must always make the effort to try to find the original reference. In some (generally rare) cases, it’s just not possible to read/find the original reference. Perhaps it’s in another language, or possibly it’s an obscure government report that is just not available to you. If you absolutely cannot find the original reference, then you would typically handle it as follows: cite the original reference, then say “…as reported in…” and then cite the reference you are actually using. This at least lets people know that the information you’re presenting is ‘third-hand’. Note also that both references must appear in your list of references.

No question, referencing is a tedious business – but it doesn’t have to be time consuming if you’re organized. Specifically, if you take a moment to note down all the details of each reference as you find and use it, it really isn’t all that much work. If you get sloppy about it and have to go back and find stuff a second time to ensure proper source referencing, it can be a real pain and it’s really not the most effective use of your time.

One last reminder – proper referencing has two components – the source citation and the detailed references. The source citation (authors(s) and year of publication) appears with the material you are referencing. The detailed reference goes at the end of your report, presentation, or poster in a proper List of References. To see what I mean by a List of References – and to see the type and form of information to present – look at the end of any journal paper as an example.

Hope you found this helpful – have a great week! 🙂


9 thoughts on “Referencing (or how to avoid plagiarizing)…

    […] Here below is an example of how large font sizes and meaningful colour choices can make this same graph very effective. Note also that the source of the data has been cited – it’s critically important to cite the sources of all the figures, data, ideas, and photographs that you use in your presentations, unless they are your own, otherwise you are plagiarizing. […]

    Chloe Stein said:
    April 16, 2015 at 5:19 am

    does that mean i reference my whole essay? every few sentences? because i wasn’t born knowing it?

      Faye Hicks responded:
      April 16, 2015 at 5:01 pm

      I’m afraid so – if it’s not yours then it belongs to someone else and must be duly credited. The trick is not to regurgitate the thoughts of others sequentially – it’s much better to synthesize the full spectrum of thoughts by others, topic by topic instead of author by author. Then, ideally, you will be in a position to develop a new (original) interpretation of the information based on this combined knowledge. It’s challenging, but it is the usual goal.

    thfg01 said:
    January 5, 2017 at 3:00 pm

    “If you didn’t invent/create it and you weren’t born knowing it – then you MUST reference it.” This is not fully correct. It is standard in science that it is not necessary to cite common knowledge and subject specific basic knowledge, when one does not copy verbatim. E. g. no physicist would cite Bragg’s law, or the momentum operator!

      Faye Hicks responded:
      January 7, 2017 at 8:31 pm

      Hi there – you raise a good point and this reasoning is sometimes accepted for named equations that are very commonly used (as one example). However, the question then arises as to where to draw the line between what is self-evident and what must be referenced, and in many cases this can be highly subjective. Consequently, for the student who does not want to risk a charge of plagiarism, it can be disconcerting. You professor can help you to assess such special cases. Having said that, I have been at thesis defences where examiners insisted on such equations being referenced even though most people were comfortable with the equation origin as universally known, so this type of exception may or may not be acceptable in some arenas. So, since even exceptions can have exceptions, my advice stands – it is better to err on the side of least potential trouble (i.e. cite everything that is not your own).

        thfg01 said:
        January 8, 2017 at 4:58 am

        Well this is somehow ridiculous, I have seen thesis evaluations with professors dropping a whole mark for the thesis due to “overcitation” because the student cited subject specific knowledge/common knowledge…

        Faye Hicks responded:
        January 8, 2017 at 5:05 am

        That too is quite ridiculous, isn’t it? To lose marks for such a thing hardly seems logical either. 😀

    Roshan said:
    February 13, 2019 at 4:57 pm

    what if i have my own data but i like the way someone else presentated similar data in form of their table. Must I cite their work if i’m using their formato for presenting the data even if all the data is my own?

      Faye Hicks responded:
      February 14, 2019 at 12:46 pm

      That’s a very good question and I would say that it probably depends upon how exactly you present it. If your column headings and formats make it look pretty similar to theirs, then I would suggesting adding a citation in the table title. Something like “(Table format adopted from xxxx, 20xx)” However, if you can change it up a bit – using somewhat different column headings and formats, then it might not be necessary to cite them. Hope that helps… Thanks for visiting my blog! 🙂

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