Plagiarism and Note Taking

© Bill Stifler, 1997, 2003

Plagiarism is the academic offense and is taken very seriously by colleges and universities. Chattanooga State's plagiarism policy is contained in the Student Handbook. The most serious plagiarism is deliberate plagiarism where a student, out of fear, laziness, or anger, deliberately turns in someone else's work as his or her own. The penalty for deliberate plagiarism ranges from failure on that assignment, to failure in the course, to expulsion from school.

The more common type of plagiarism is accidental plagiarism where a student inadvertently plagiarises. This type of plagiarism does not happen when a person is writing the paper; it happens during notetaking (unless, of course, the person didn't take notes).

When I was in high school, I was told that as long as I didn't copy three consecutive words from the original, it wasn't plagiarism. This is not true.

Take for example the following:

"But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components" (Zinsser 7)

Attempt at paraphrasing
The trick to the best writing is to prune each sentence to its bare parts (Zinsser 7).

The above paraphrase is plagiarized. It is too close to the original to be a good paraphrase but is not an exact quote. Notice how each phrase in the original has an exact match in the paraphrase. The only way a person would write this paraphrase is if he or she was looking at the original which means that this paraphrase was in the student's notes (or the student didn't take notes but wrote the paper while looking at his or her sources).

There are several things that students can do to avoid accidental plagiarism

  1. When taking notes on material that is basically factual, restrict your notes, as much as possible, to nouns.
  2. Avoid writing down any other parts of speech like verbs or adjectives. You can write down commonplace verbs like born, died, or married. If you write any phrases into your notes that include more than just a noun, surround the phrase in quotation marks. Also, if you copy a list of nouns into your notes, surround the list with quotation marks. Oftentimes, you can use shorthand symbols (like arrows) or spacing in your notes (like indenting a list of categories under a subject) in order to suggest relationships between ideas.
  3. When taking notes on material that is more complex, record key nouns, then paraphrase or summarize the main ideas.
  4. Read slowly and carefully. Write down key nouns. Stop and think about what you have read. If you can re-state it simply, write down your restatement without looking back at the original. If you canít, then re-read one sentence, stop, write down any key nouns, then without looking back at the original, translate the sentence into your own words. Continue sentence by sentence. Notes on Zinsser's statement might read

    Good writing--remove unnecessary words (Zinsser 7)

    Later, when incorporating those notes into the paper, it would be impossible for the writer to "capture" the wording or flavor of Zinsser's original statement (unless the writer just had a phenomenal memory). The writer would probably put something like the following into his or her paper

    Good writers remove unnecesary words from their papers (Zinsser 7).1

    1Note: Although Zinsser has not been quoted, he has still been given credit for the idea contained in the paraphrase.

  5. In particular, avoid characteristic phrases from the original or, if you use them, be sure to quote them.
  6. If the word "strip" or the phrase "cleanest components" from the Zinsser quote above were used in a paper, the paper would "feel" plagiarized. Recent news stories about professional writers who plagiarized were guilty of just this use of characteristic phrases. If you choose to include these characteristic phrases in your notes, be sure to surround them by quotation marks so that you remember that they are quotes. Note: Of these two, only "strip" seems worth quoting. The phrase "cleanest components" is not striking, nor is it as clear as 'unnecessary words.'

    Use quotations sparingly. If your whole paper is a series of quotes, how much of it did you write? Quotes are always used for purposes of voice. Writers generally use short quotations in order to incorporate telling phrases or powerful language into their writing. Short quotations are documented parenthetically, often without drawing attention to the source (a notable exception is when quoting from a literary source for purposes of explication). Long quotations are always introduced by identifying the source in what is called a "running acknowlegement." The following might be reasons of voice for incorporating a long quotation:

See also, Avoiding Plagiarism: From Notes to Analogy and Paraphrase

Last Updated: Thursday, July 01, 2004 15:06:42