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Why Instructors Are Concerned About Plagiarism

May 15, 2008
In order to understand plagiarism, it is worthwhile to understand and respect the process of sharing and creating new ideas in the university setting. First, it should be understood that all knowledge is built from previous knowledge. Very little that we do within the world of academics or business would be possible if it were not for those who went before us. As we read, study, experiment, and gather perspectives, we are merely "standing on the shoulders of giants". This is not to say that all that can be learned has been, it just simply means you realize the process of knowledge is less about the individual and more about fields of study. However, by building on other people's ideas, we hopefully create our own original thought.

So what happens when you put your ideas down on paper? When you do this your instructors will be able to distinguish between the building block ideas borrowed from other people and your own newly reasoned perspectives or conclusions. When you write a research paper or essay you make these distinctions by citing the sources for your building block ideas. On a side note, giving clear credit for your ideas matters in the professional community as well as the academic community.

So why are professors so strict about citing sources? Think of it this way: in the vast majority of assignments you'll be assigned while attending university, your instructors will ask you to read something. OK, easy enough. These assigned books, journals, essays, and papers are the building blocks for your new thought. Upon reading you assigned work, generally the next step is for you to write a paper in which you analyze one or more aspects of what you just read. Thus your opportunity to explore the new structure you build. If that is too abstract, let's keep it simple. When instructors are asking you to site your work they really want to know the following things:

* First and foremost they want to know that you actually read the assigned work.

* Second, they want to see that you have a clear understanding of the material you've been asked to read. By the time you reach university the instructor's job is to challenge you as a student, not simply supply you with facts.

* Third, professors want to see you refer to your sources to support the ideas you have developed. Professors will generally only assign books or essays by authors that they respect. Thus citing specific pieces of an authors work gives the professor a chance to see whether or not you were able to pick out the key concepts.

* Fourth, and probably the most important, professors want to see that you can distinguish your analysis from the author's analyses. Anyone can recite, but analysis takes more work.

Lastly, remember that when you cite a source you are using an expert's ideas as proof or evidence of your new idea. It is important to communicate this clearly to the reader. Do not think of sources as a way of filling your paper with random facts, professors want to know what you think.
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