"I have been told last night that portions of my graduation remarks — in particular my address to the Schools of Humanities and Social Sciences — had been borrowed from certain other graduation speeches.” ~ Filipino Tycoon Manuel Pangilinan, BBC News, April 4, 2010
“[Doris Kearns] Goodwin recently acknowledged lifting from other authors several passages in her 1987 best-seller, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. She said the passages appeared in her book by accident, the result of confusing her own notes with those drawn from other sources.” ~ “Goodwin Withdraws from Pulitzer Judging,” CNN.com, March 5, 2002
When I think of how I wrote most of my high school “research” papers, I cringe. Having procrastinated long enough that I had no choice but to make my first draft my last, I would sit at a typewriter, surrounded by opened encyclopedia volumes and other books, pulling from this and that, citing occasionally, and, if I’m honest with myself, probably plagiarizing up a storm, although that was not my intention and I didn’t think of it that way at the time.My guess is that many other readers have similar memories.
In college, I very soon learned better, but as someone who has taught writing and research to college students since 1989, I’m amazed at how little things have changed. The only differences are that students today sit in front of tabbed URLs instead of open books, and the temptations to cut corners by cutting and pasting are greater and easier to give into than ever. For whatever reasons, many of the college freshmen I’ve taught have learned little about their P’s & Q's — paraphrasing and quoting — before they get to college.
Our current mash-up culture and Creative Commons resources, while opening doors to amazing creative possibilities, also make the issues of proper borrowing and attribution more complex and confusing, as do famous examples of questionable research, from graduation speeches to best-selling books.
When you need to paraphrase a source, following a few guidelines can help you to avoid unintentional plagiarism as well as make you a better writer. If you are a student or a blogger or even a freelancer confused about proper paraphrasing, here is a short primer with tips to use every time you write for school or publication, including some resources for further study.