You have probably heard the saying that “knowledge is power.” Although knowledge can certainly contribute to power, this saying is true only if that knowledge is put to use. When you retrieve, sort, interpret, analyze, and synthesize sources from an information center—be it the library, a computer database, or the Web—you can produce a product that has power.
But first, you have to decide what form that product will take and what kind of power you want it to hold. Who are you going to tell about your discoveries, and how? What do you hope to accomplish by sharing your conclusions? Remember that a major goal of information literacy is to use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose. Make it a point to do something with the results of your research. Otherwise, why bother?
Ultimately, the point of conducting research is that the process contributes to the development of new knowledge. As a researcher, you sought the answer to a question. Now is the time to formulate that answer and share it.
Many students satisfy themselves with a straightforward report that merely summarizes what they found. Sometimes that’s enough. More often, however, you’ll want to apply the information to ideas of your own. To do that, first consider all the information that you found and how your sources relate to each other. What do they have in common, and where do they disagree? What conclusions can you draw from those similarities and differences? What new ideas did they spark? How can you use the information that you have on hand to support your conclusions?
What you’re doing at this stage of any research project is processing information, an activity known as synthesis. By accepting some ideas, rejecting others, combining related concepts, assessing the implications, and pulling it all together, you’ll create new information and ideas that other people can use.
Your final paper will include analysis and synthesis of the sources that you found through your research along with your original ideas. You must make sure that you clearly delineate which thoughts and ideas came from the sources you found.
synthesis The process of combining separate information and ideas to formulate a more complete understanding.
Plagiarism, or taking another person’s idea or work and presenting it as your own, is especially intolerable in academic culture. Just as taking someone else’s property constitutes physical theft, taking credit for someone else’s ideas—someone’s intellectual property—constitutes intellectual theft. In written reports and papers, you must give credit any time you use (a) another person’s actual words; (b) another person’s ideas or theories, even if you don’t quote them directly; or (c) any other information that is not considered common knowledge.
Writers and journalists whose plagiarism has been discovered—such as Jayson Blair, formerly of the New York Times, and Stephen Glass, formerly of the New Republic—have lost their jobs and their journalistic careers. Even college presidents have occasionally been found guilty of “borrowing” the words of others and using them as their own in speeches and written documents. Such discoveries result not only in embarrassment and shame, but also in lawsuits and criminal actions.
Because plagiarism can be a problem on college campuses, faculty members are now using electronic systems such as www.turnitin.com to identify passages in student papers that have been plagiarized. Many instructors routinely check their students’ papers to make sure that the writing is original. So even though the temptation to cheat or plagiarize might be strong, the chance of possibly getting a better grade isn’t worth misrepresenting yourself or your knowledge and suffering the potential consequences. Because no universal code dictates such behaviors, ask your instructors for clarification. When a student is caught violating the academic code of a particular school or instructor, pleading ignorance of the rules is a weak defense.
It should go without saying (but we’ll say it anyway) that deliberate cheating is a bad idea on many levels. Submitting a paper that you purchased from an Internet source or from an individual will cause you to miss out on the discovery and skill development that research assignments are meant to teach. Intentional plagiarism is easily detected and will almost certainly earn you a failing grade and maybe even expulsion.
Although most cases of plagiarism are the result of misunderstanding or carelessness, be aware that “I didn’t know” is not a valid excuse. Although your instructors might acknowledge that plagiarism can be an honest mistake, they will still expect you to avoid errors, and they will call you on it if you don’t. Luckily, plagiarism is relatively easy to avoid. Keep careful notes as you conduct your research so that later on you don’t inadvertently mistake someone else’s words or ideas for your own. Finally, be sure to check out your own campus’s definition of what constitutes plagiarism, which you will find in the student handbook or in first-year English course materials. If you have any questions or doubts about what is and is not acceptable, ask.
At some point you’ll present your findings. Whether they take the form of an essay, a formal research paper, a script for a presentation or broadcast, a page for a Web site, or something else entirely, you must give credit to your sources.
Citing your sources serves many purposes. For one thing, acknowledging the information and ideas you’ve borrowed from other writers shows respect for their contributions. It also distinguishes between other writers’ ideas and your own. Source citations demonstrate to your audience that you have based your conclusions on thoughtful consideration of good, reliable evidence. Source citations also provide a starting place for anyone who would like more information or is curious about how you reached your conclusions. Most important is that citing your sources is the simplest way to avoid plagiarism.
The particular requirements of source citation can get complicated, but it all boils down to two rules. As you write, just remember:
If you use somebody else’s exact words, you must give that person credit.
If you use somebody else’s ideas, even if you use your own words to express those ideas, you must give that person credit.
Your instructors will indicate their preferred method for citation: footnotes, references in parentheses included in the text of your paper, or endnotes. If you’re not provided with guidelines or if you simply want to be sure that you do it right, consult a handbook or writing style manual, such as those prepared by the Modern Language Association (MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers), the American Psychological Association (Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association), the University of Chicago Press (The Chicago Manual of Style), or the Council of Science Editors (Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers).
plagiarism The act of taking another person's idea or work and presenting it as your own. This gross academic misconduct can result in suspension or expulsion, and even the revocation of the violator's college degree.
intellectual property Ownership over nonphysical creative works such as slogans, artwork, and inventions. Copyright, trademarks, and patents are kinds of intellectual property.