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Practical Insights: Preventing Plagiarism

September 14, 2020 | Shaun G. Jamison, JD, PhD

Plagiarism is remarkably common on the internet. You will see unrelated sources look almost (or actually) identical. You will see people using photographs and drawings belonging to others, neither getting permission nor giving credit. However, while plagiarism is frequent online, the standards are more stringent in higher education.

As someone working on getting a law degree, or as someone who has already earned your Juris Doctor or Executive Juris Doctor degree, you must be particularly careful to avoid plagiarism due to the ethical implications and the high standards of integrity to which law students and legal professionals are held.

What Is Plagiarism?

People often think plagiarism means "cheating," but it is generally broader than people would assume. Simply, if you use the expression of another without giving proper credit, you have plagiarized.

A common example is using the actual words of another person—even just a single sentence or a distinctive phrase—without providing quotation marks and a citation. How does this happen? Sometimes people do it without knowing the rules or realizing they are plagiarizing. Sometimes they simply forget that what they are including was, in fact, a quote. And sometimes they are behind on their work and desperate, and so they cut corners.

Hopefully, you would never knowingly use another's words without citation. However, it is entirely possible to forget where you found something during a major research project. This is why it is critical to keep a research journal and to document quotes and citations in that journal as you go. This will prevent inadvertent issues with quotations. Make no mistake, accidental plagiarism is still plagiarism.

What About Paraphrasing?

Paraphrasing is permissible, but there are some important rules to keep in mind. First, you must still give credit (i.e., a footnote or other citation to the source) for the paraphrased expression, but you do not put it in quotes. Second, your paraphrase needs to be sufficiently distinct in expression from the original. It needs to be in a different sentence structure and rewritten into your style and voice.

Other Examples of Plagiarism

How about stitching together a paper or student brief using outside sources that you properly quote and paraphrase? This can still be a problem if a substantial portion of the paper is not your analysis and expression. As a general rule, if a third or more of the paper consists of quotations or close paraphrases, you have rewriting to do.

Note that the prohibition on plagiarism applies to drafts, bulletin board assignments, outlines, and other academic submissions. If you turn it into the school, it must have proper citations and attribution. Default to strictly following the rules unless you are explicitly informed otherwise in writing by your professor. 

As a practicing legal professional, the same goes for anything you turn in to your boss and, even more so, to a court of law. (Adapting a brief from an earlier case to the particulars of a current case may be perfectly acceptable, but that is only because you are copying your—or your firm’s—own prior expression in circumstances where originality is not expected or required. So this is really the exception that proves the rule.)

Do you need to give credit for photographs, drawings, charts, and the like that you include in your work product? Yes. And you need permission or a license to use other people's work, unless there is an exception to the copyright laws such as fair use.

10 Tips for Preventing Plagiarism

1. Become familiar with what plagiarism is.

As mentioned above, plagiarism can encompass a wide variety of intentional or unintentional errors in attribution. While direct quotes without citation are most obviously plagiarism, other instances include inadequate paraphrasing, where a writer fails to summarize another author with sufficiently original phrasing; or uncited paraphrasing, where one does correctly paraphrase but fails to also cite the original source. 

2. Read and follow assignment directions carefully.

Your instructor has likely offered direct instructions on how and when to cite sources. Often, assignments will request specific citation rules or even forbid certain sources. 

3. Learn proper citation rules.

There are a variety of outlets both online and in print that can help you brush up on citation rules. The Purdue Global Library has an overview of Bluebook citation rules.

4. Don't use any material whose source you can't identify.

Much like at the airport: don't accept packages from strangers. If you can’t tell where information is coming from, it doesn't belong in your research. This especially applies to articles published on the internet, as opposed to peer-reviewed journals, which should be upholding citation standards.

5. Don't reuse your old materials—that can be plagiarism, too.

Reusing old materials can result in improper citation, especially if research has been updated or iterated. It’s worth noting that if you attempt to submit the same work for credit on two separate occasions, that’s academic dishonesty and can result in serious consequences. 

6. Create a timeline for your projects so you are not rushing at the last minute and making mistakes.

Working quickly can cause you to cut corners. It could result in improper paraphrasing, forgotten citations, or even direct plagiarism in instances where an author is rushing to a deadline. Like all school work, projects are best done well in advance of due dates to avoid the pressure of procrastination.

7. As noted above, maintain a journal as you research and write.

Organizing notes as you conduct research will not only make a project easier, it will make tracking different references much simpler. 

8. Use the “copy with reference” function in Westlaw.

Westlaw provides a citation generator for almost all the legal documents in its database. You can highlight text and select “copy with reference,” and it will copy both the quote and the citation to your clipboard. When compiling notes, this is a quick way to make sure you’re avoiding plagiarism.

9. Use History and Folders in Westlaw.

The Folder function in Westlaw allows you to categorize and store your research. The History function saves all your searches. Combined, these let you quickly check research for most legal documents in the Westlaw database. 

10. Use a bibliography software system.

Reference management software such as RefWorksZoteroEndnoteMendeley, and Citationsy can help you automatically build references and bibliographies. Compare different solutions to see which best fits your research and writing style. 

Protect Against Plagiarism

The ultimate rule is: err on the side of caution. As a student, check the law school requirements and policies or ask your professor for clarification before submitting your work. Don't just roll the dice and hope for forgiveness after the fact. Plagiarism can affect your character and fitness investigation for admission to the bar. As a legal professional, ask a colleague, a mentor, or even a state bar ethics hotline to make sure you understand what is appropriate. Developing good habits will help you avoid getting near a line you don't want to cross.

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About The Author

Shaun G. Jamison, JD, PhD

Shaun G. Jamison is the associate dean of academics at Purdue Global Law School (formerly Concord Law School). The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the view of Purdue Global Law School.