Plagiarism and Paraphrase

Most writers know that copying another’s work word for word without giving author credit is considered plagiarism.  But they often assume that this practice is frowned on only when long passages are involved: whole pages or paragraphs.  Consequently, they feel free to copy phrases and sentences without using quotation marks or acknowledgments.  Actually, any uncredited use of another’s information or ideas is plagiarism, whether the wording is changed or not.  Under the mistaken notion that uncredited paraphrasing is acceptable, students often reproduce sources almost exactly, changing only a word here and there.  An honest paraphrase, however, is one in which the ideas of the source are stated in the writer’s own words, and it is still necessary to credit the source.  The following examples show the difference between genuine paraphrase and plagiarism of source material:

Original Source (from Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1, 248-249):  No political form has hitherto been discovered that is equally favorable to the prosperity and the development of all the classes into which society is divided.  These classes continue to form, as it were, so many distinct communities in the same nation; and experience has shown that it is not less dangerous to place the fate of these classes exclusively in the hands of any one of them that it is to make one people the arbiter of the destiny of another.  When the rich alone govern, the interest of the poor is always endangered; and when the poor make the laws, that of the rich incurs very serious risks.  The advantage of democracy does not consist, therefore, as has sometimes been asserted, in favoring the prosperity of all, but simply in contributing to the well-being of the greatest number.

Student Version A: Hitherto no one has found a political form that favors equally the prosperity and development of all the different classes of society.  Experience has shown that it is just as dangerous to place the fate of these classes in the hands of one class as to let one nation dictate the destiny of another.  Government by the rich endangers the poor; and the poor make laws that often harm the interests of the rich.  Therefore, the advantage of democracy does not consist in raising general prosperity, but simply in adding to the well-being of the majority.
Plagiarism: In omitting any reference to De Tocqueville, the above student writer implies that these ideas are his or her own.  In organization the paragraph follow the source very closely: same order of ideas, same number and structure of sentences.  Many of the words and phrases are lifted bodily from the source without quotation marks to indicate that are not the writer’s.  In other cases, word order has been simply rearranged and synonyms substituted (“found” for “discovered,” “nation” for “one people,” “adding” for “contributing,” “majority” for “greatest number”).
Student Version B:  De Tocqueville says that no form of government in history has been uniformly beneficial to all classes of society.  He maintains that both the rich and the poor, when in control of the government, pass laws favorable to their class and repressive toward the other.  According to him, the virtue of a democracy is that it benefits the majority, not that it benefits the whole. 
Paraphrase:  The writer admits, both in the text and in bibliographic citation (not shown here), that the ideas in the paragraph are De Tocqueville’s.  She states them in her own words and does not slavishly follow the source.  Quotation marks are unnecessary, since none of the phrases are De Tocqueville’s.
Original Source (from Lionel Trilling, “F. Scott Fitzgerald,” The Liberal Imagination, 42):  Thus, The Great Gatsby has its interest as a record of contemporary manners, but this might only have served to date it, did not Fitzgerald take the given moment of history as something more than a mere circumstance, did he not, in the manner of the great French novelists of the nineteenth century, seize the given moment as a moral fact . . . . For Gatsby,  divided between power and dream, comes inevitably to stand for America itself.
Student Version A: Of course, the one thing that makes The Great Gatsby interesting is its picture of the life of the twenties, but if it were only this it would now be out of date.  Instead, like the great French novelists, Fitzgerald made the particular moment a moral symbol.  Gatsby, the main character, divided between power and dream, represents the American dilemma.
Plagiarism:  This version does not reproduce the source as closely as the plagiarism of the De Tocqueville passage above; it more subtly plagiarizes the original.  Again, the writer gives no indication that the ideas expressed are not his or her own.  The wording, except for “divided between power and dream,” is largely original.  The comparison between Fitzgerald and the “great French novelists” is the clue: it implies a critical breadth beyond the range of most undergraduate writers, a sign that the writer is plagiarizing ideas from the original sources without knowing what they really mean.
Student Version B:  As Lionel Trilling points out, The Great Gatsby is much more than a record of the manners of the twenties.  In miniature, Gatsby represents America, both of them “divided between power and dream.”
Paraphrase:  The writer credits Trilling as the originator of the ideas he presents.  He also puts quotation marks around the phrase he uses verbatim.  In MLA citation format, he should also provide a parenthetical page reference for the quote.
Credit where credit is due: Thanks to Dr. Elizabeth Metzger (with minor tinkering by Dr. Michael Pinsky) for providing this material, drawn originally from The Handbook of Current English, Sixth Edition, ed. Jim W. Corder, Scott, Foreman and Company.