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Doing Honest Work in College
How to Prepare Citations, Avoid Plagiarism, and Achieve Real Academic Success
By Charles Lipson
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2008 Charles Lipson
All rights reserved.
THE THREE PRINCIPLES OF ACADEMIC HONESTY
Academic honesty boils down to three simple but powerful principles:
When you say you did the work yourself, you actually did it.
When you rely on someone else's work, you cite it. When you use their words, you quote them openly and accurately, and you cite them, too.
When you present research materials, you present them fairly and truthfully. That's true whether the research involves data, documents, or the writings of other scholars.
These are bedrock principles, easy to remember and follow. They apply to all your classes, labs, papers, and exams. They cover everything from English papers to chemistry experiments, from computer codes to architectural drawings. They apply to everyone in the university, from freshmen to professors. They're not just principles for students. They're principles for academic honesty across the entire university.
Of course, each university has its own code of conduct, and each class its own rules for specific assignments. In the next chapter, I'll discuss these detailed rules and explain how to follow them in papers, labs, study groups, and exams.
I'll also discuss how to use the Internet properly for assignments and show you how to cite Web pages, online articles, and blogs, as well as books, articles, poems, and films. With this brief book, you can avoid plagiarism and handle nearly every citation you'll ever do, from anthropology to astrophysics.
Speaking of sciences, what about honesty in study groups and labs? That can be confusing because you sometimes work with fellow students and sometimes by yourself. What exactly are you supposed to do on your own, without any help? I'll pass along useful advice from lab supervisors, who explain how to use study groups more effectively and how to avoid any problems.
On all these issues, I'll report on conversations with deans of students. They deal with academic honesty every day and know the issues well. Believe me, it's a lot better to read their advice here than to have them explain it to you privately! That is a meeting you do not want to have.
The most important advice is to listen to your professors' rules for each assignment, ask for clarification if you're unsure, and then follow the three basic principles: If you say you did this work, then you really did it. If you quoted others or used their research, you acknowledge it openly. If you say the data or lab experiment came out a particular way, then it really did. Never make up data, hide bad results, or steal others' work. Don't misrepresent your findings or anyone else's. Don't misrepresent their ideas, either.
If you follow this straightforward advice, you'll stay on the right side of your university's rules and meet the highest standards of academic integrity. Your grades will be honestly earned.
Now, let's get down to nuts and bolts.CHAPTER 2
ACADEMIC HONESTY FROM YOUR FIRST CLASS TO YOUR FINAL EXAM
What does it mean to do honest work in college? This chapter explores everyday issues and offers practical solutions, beginning with reading assignments and exams. From the first day of classes, you'll be required to read books, articles, and electronic documents, so it's important to know what's expected. It's also important to know what's expected in seminars and discussion sections, as well as specialized classes such as foreign languages. I'll cover all of those and offer concrete advice.
Within a few weeks, you'll be taking midterm exams. Whether they are in-class or take-home, all exams share one basic rule: You have to do your own work, without "borrowing" from others. But beyond that, the rules vary. I'll discuss these different rules and explain what to do if you're unsure about them.
Next, I'll turn to one of the most important tasks in college, writing papers. Research for these papers requires you to draw on others' work and combine it with your own ideas. That means taking clear notes and using quotes and citations properly. I'll explain that in this chapter and the next, showing how to take notes that clearly separate your words and ideas from another author's. I'll explain how to quote and paraphrase in your papers and how to cite the works you rely on, whether they're in print or on the Web.
Readings, exams, and papers are all individual assignments. Other assignments, however, require you to work closely with fellow students. In chemistry and biology, for example, you'll work alongside a lab partner. In math and statistics, you may join a study group. What are you supposed to do together? And what are you supposed to do separately? I'll explain.
I'll also explain what to do about a low grade. One thing you can always do is get advice about how to do better next time. Teachers want to help students, especially those who want to improve and are willing to work at it. You can also appeal if you think your paper was graded too harshly. To do that, though, you need to follow some basic guidelines. You can't change anything on the paper or exam, and you should offer a clear, sensible reason for the appeal. I'll explain that later in the chapter.
Finally, I'll discuss honor codes, which some colleges use to encourage honest work and personal responsibility.
The aim of this chapter, then, is to give you an overview of what it means to do honest work in college and take you step-by-step through the issues you'll confront. I'll discuss reading assignments, exams, papers, study groups, and labs, and I'll offer some suggestions about problems that occasionally crop up. I'll also pass along some tips about studying more effectively. All these ideas point toward a single goal: honest learning.
From the first day of class, you'll get reading assignments. It's a mistake to skip the reading—but it's not cheating. Some students read summaries (such as CliffsNotes) to supplement their readings or even to substitute for them. As a supplement they're fine, if you think they help. As a substitute, they shortchange your education. But you aren't violating any academic rules.
Tip on reading more efficiently: Don't sit down, open an article or nonaction book to the first page, and try to read it straight through. It helps to get an overview first. Look at the introduction, conclusion, and table of contents. If it's an article, read the abstract and section headings. Then read the introduction and conclusion. You don't have to keep the ending secret. It's not a mystery novel. After this overview, you'll have a good sense of the overall work and can begin more detailed reading.
Exams come in two delicious flavors: in-class and take-home. Because the formats are different, so are the rules governing them. Let's consider each briefly.
Most in-class exams are "closed book." They don't allow you to consult any materials, including handwritten notes or data stored on your computer or PDA. You might be asked to bring your own blue books to an exam—blank ones, of course. Those are the default rules for in-class exams, and they are rarely changed. Stick to them unless you are explicitly told otherwise. If you are unsure about a particular exam, simply ask your professor.
Along the same lines, you should not have access to an exam before it is given. You may be able to guess what's on the exam, and it's fine to look at last year's or last semester's. But current exams are off-limits until you take them. It's cheating to pass the questions from this morning's exam to a friend who takes it this afternoon.
Occasionally, teachers give open-book exams in class. Students can use their notes, thumb through their books, and type answers on their computers during the test (though not prior to it). That certainly cuts down on dull work and rote memorization, but it doesn't make the tests any easier. Students still need to know the material well so they can write compelling answers and, if necessary, find essential information quickly.
In one legendary test, a teacher explained that his next exam would be open book and students could use "anything they can carry into class." One carried in a graduate student. I highly recommend this approach. It cuts down on needless studying.
Actually, you have to write your exams without any help. That's true whether they are open or closed book. No glances at other students' papers. No downloading precooked answers from the Internet or from your own hard drive. No text messages. No using others' words and ideas without proper quotes and citations. And, unfortunately, no carrying in graduate students, even very light ones.
Tip on in-class exams: You can't use notes, books, articles, or electronic data when you write in-class exams, unless you are specifically told otherwise.
It's fine to study together before exams. Practicing answers is a great way to study—or, rather, it's great if you participate actively in the group. It doesn't help much if you just sit and listen. (That's one reason why small study groups are better than large ones.) Once you are inside the exam room, however, you are on your own. That's a central pillar of academic honesty.
Learn from Woody Allen's experience: "I was thrown out of NYU my freshman year for cheating on the metaphysics final.... I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me."
Take-home exams are usually open book. You are permitted to use books, articles, notes, and the Web. That's the standard policy, although it pays to check the rules for each exam.
Even if you are allowed to use published works and your own notes, you cannot ask others for help. That's cheating, just as it would be in class.
Similarly, if you incorporate ideas from books, articles, or the Web, you need to indicate that they are others' ideas. Even though it's an exam rather than a research paper, play it safe and cite any work you rely on. (Later, I'll show you exactly how to do that.) If it's a direct quote, enclose it in quotation marks and include a specific citation. If you've paraphrased something, use your own words, not a close imitation of the author's. And, of course, you still need to cite the original source.
Even with proper citations and quotes, the work has to be your own. You can't copy chunks of text off the Internet, drop them into your exam or research paper, pop in a citation or two, and call it your own. It's not. Cutting and pasting doesn't make it truly your exam or your paper. It's simply a patchwork quilt of others' work.
Actually, the rules are even more strict, for both exams and papers. You cannot copy as much as a single sentence—from the Web, a book, or anything else—unless you clearly mark it as a quote and cite it properly. Remember the basic principle: When you rely on someone else's work, you cite it; when you use their words, you quote them openly and accurately.
Tip on take-home exams: You are usually permitted to use books, articles, notes, and the Web for take-home exams, although it always pays to check. What you can never do is copy answers or ask anyone for help. The exam is still yours alone to complete. Whatever sources you use, phrase the answers in your own words and cite the source. If you copy anything directly from these sources, place it in quotation marks and cite it.
Paper assignments are almost always meant to be done individually. (Later, I'll discuss group assignments. For now, let's concentrate on individual work.) You need to do the reading, research, and writing by yourself and take responsibility for the results. It's great to talk about the project, and it's fine to consult teachers, writing tutors, and friends. Feel free to show them a draft version and get their feedback. But you need to do your own research, organize the paper, and write it yourself.
You will almost always utilize the work of others. That's essential to good research. You should read the best works and draw on them with a critical eye—sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing. Learning to do that well is a major goal of higher education. It's one way you'll become a more thoughtful and informed person.
This is not the place to discuss how to write papers. My goal here is more limited. I simply want to say what it means to write papers honestly. That's really very simple. First, whenever you rely on the work of anyone else, cite it so your readers know. That's true whether you agree or disagree with the cited works. If you use anyone else's ideas, include a citation. If you use their exact words, use quotation marks and a citation.
Second, whenever you quote someone directly, use quotation marks. Longer quotes, running more than a few sentences, are indented rather than enclosed with quotation marks, but the principle is the same. Readers will understand this block indent is a quotation:
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
No one will ever think you meant to plagiarize the Gettysburg Address. Still, you need to cite it. Citations are especially important when your sources are obscure or controversial. You must show readers exactly which sources you used, whether they're for data, analysis, or direct quotes.
To put it a little differently, your references (or their absence) shouldn't mislead readers. Use them to strengthen your analysis and amplify your ideas, never as a substitute for doing your own work.
One more important point about papers: you cannot hand in the same paper to more than one class. That's also true for homework assignments. If you write a paper on the Great Depression for an economics class, you can't turn it in to an American history class, too. You have to write another paper. You're not allowed to plagiarize your own work. You are still welcome to write about the Great Depression and even to rely on some of the same books and articles, but the paper itself should be substantially different. (If you really want to expand on an earlier paper, explain that to your current teacher and get approval. If you want to turn in the same paper to two current classes, talk to both teachers and get their approval.)
Tips on writing honest papers:
Cite others' work whenever you rely on it.
When you use someone's words, quote them accurately, mark them as a quotation, and include a citation.
When you paraphrase, use your own distinctive voice, not a facsimile of the author's. Be sure to include a citation.
Never represent anyone else's work as your own.
Never hand in the same paper to two classes unless you have permission from both instructors.
Never buy, sell, or "borrow" papers. Do your own work.
In the next chapter, I'll expand on how to write papers honestly. But these are the key ideas: do the work yourself, quote accurately, cite the work you use and the ideas you draw upon, and present all materials fairly.
Buying Papers on the Internet
It's dishonest to buy (or sell!) papers. For that matter, it's dishonest to turn in papers you have lifted from friends, downloaded from the Internet, or cut-and-pasted from two or three sources. It doesn't matter whether your friends gave you permission or whether the information is freely available on the Web. It is dishonest to represent anyone else's work as your own. It's just as dishonest to provide your work to others.
This kind of cheating is often caught. Professors have seen lots of papers, and they have developed good antennae to pick up dishonest ones. There are usually telltale signs. Some papers just don't sound like a particular student. Others don't quite address the assignment. Occasionally, the introduction doesn't sound like the conclusion. For example, a paper might begin: "It's for sure America will sign to this international treaty." Then it might conclude, without quotation marks: "Having ratified this pact with such lofty ideals and soaring hopes, America will soon confront its harsh realities." The writer who fumbled through the first sentence could not have written the last one. Someone else did, and the student copied it. Still other papers include obvious signs of cheating such as antiquated citations or out-of-date references. "President Lincoln will probably defeat the Confederacy and win reelection." I'm betting he will. I just hope he doesn't go to the theater.
Faculty have also become more sophisticated about detecting fraud via the Internet. Although it's easy to cheat using the Web, it's easy to catch cheating the same way. Faculty simply select some text from a questionable student paper and do a Google search for it. They can also use computer services that now work with universities to detect plagiarism and cheating. These services compare newly submitted student papers to everything in their databases, which include thousands of previously submitted student papers, all publicly available Web sites, and nearly all published articles. They automatically flag sentences in new papers matching those in the database. Then each newly submitted paper, honest or not, becomes part of this ever-expanding database.
Excerpted from Doing Honest Work in College by Charles Lipson. Copyright © 2008 Charles Lipson. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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