In My Own Words

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The universal definition of plagiarism is using words that aren’t your own without giving credit. Essentially, you’re stealing someone else’s ideas. It’s a simple concept: just do the work and cite anything that isn’t original. 50% of students have been known to plagiarize – it’s pretty safe to assume you know someone who has done it.

Students are taking 4 to 5 classes in a semester and writing multiple papers and mid-terms, while juggling a part-time job and trying to remember the concepts involved with sleeping and eating. But when it comes to plagiarism, we know the rules; maybe we even know a list of good sites from which to obtain sources. So why does this still happen? Last minute papers, hectic schedules and bad days just end up being a list of poor and ineffective excuses to your professor.

Professors talk about how to avoid plagiarism and improve writing skills by recommending websites, providing endless resources and even telling stories about that one student who made a mistake, had to meet with the Dean, had a hearing and lost. Whether accidental or intentional, the student got in trouble. We hear the rules again and again, and it’s emphasized so much that it loses meaning. There’s a section dedicated to plagiarism in the syllabus for each course, but it doesn’t make a difference.

At this point, you know what it is and how to avoid it, and the professor’s comments are just guidelines. However, there’s one thing the professor isn’t considering: your education.

According to Tyler Evans-Tokark, a Writing Specialist at the Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre, two methods that trip students up are “patch writing” (cobbling together texts from various sources), and paraphrasing – both without citing. He states it is more of “a lack of literacy” than an intentional stealing of ideas. Students should learn to strengthen writing skills based on knowledge and the reason behind the rules instead of just learning that “plagiarism is wrong.”

Evans-Tokark advises that research is the key to a successful paper. Write the ideas, formulate what you’d like to say, and then do the research – that way you’re finding sources to strengthen your own point. Keep up with readings to remain knowledgeable about the material and familiarize yourself with the topic. He can sympathize with students stating the juggling of classes and personal lives leads to sloppiness in papers and bad judgement, but he says time management is vital. It’s about investing time into your education for a better outcome.

He defines a good writing piece as one with a structured setup. Create a model to introduce ideas and add rhetorical moves. This doesn’t mean using big words to sound more intelligent. It’s about using parallelism and patterns of argument, and this begins by expanding the “five paragraph essay” format enforced by high school teachers. Another tip is adding two controversial sources with opposing views. Remember to always expand on the class material.

In the meantime, talk to professors or TAs for advice on format and styling, and while writing the paper, always cite, make your own arguments and research your ideas. When researching articles, study the writing style of the sources you’re using – the best way to improve your writing is to read that of others. When writing the paper, other tips from Evans-Tokark include colour-coding drafts to keep yourself organized, and to quote less, writing in your own words.

Evans-Tokark is full of ideas for improving knowledge and understanding among students. For example, he says professors and TAs could implement online tutorials or quizzes to test students’ knowledge on certain topics (Blackboard lets you do this). Other examples include practice quizzes in tutorials, exercises, i-Clickers, and student debates.

Special thanks to Tyler Evans-Tokark of the Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre for his input.