3.4 How to Avoid High-Risk Situations

Students who misuse sources usually don't set out to; they usually plan to write a thoughtful paper that displays their own thinking. But they allow themselves to slip into a situation in which they either misuse sources out of negligence or come to beli eve that they have no choice but to misuse sources. Here are some suggestions for avoiding such situations, based on Administrative Board records of students who did just the opposite.

1. Don't leave written work until the last minute, when you may be surprised by how much work the assignment requires. This doesn't mean that you need to draft the paper weeks in advance (you can start working on a paper by simply jotting a few words or thoughts somewhere), but it does mean looking over the instructions for the assignment early on, jotting any first impressions, clearing up any confusions with your instructor, and getting the topic into your subsconscious mind, wh ich can help you flag potentially useful material in subsequent reading and lectures. (If you feel you have a special fear or block about writing papers, or procrastinate excessively, or just don't seem to be able to organize and prioritize work, make an appointment at the Bureau of Study Counsel.)

2. Don't use secondary sources for a paper unless you are asked or explicitly allowed to. Especially, if you feel stuck or panicked, don't run to the library and bring back an armload of sources that you hope will jump-start your o wn thinking. Chances are they will only scatter and paralyze your thinking. Instead, go to your instructor or section leader for advice—or try jump-starting your paper in another way (e.g. by freewriting or brainstorming, by re-analyzing the assignment it self, by formulating a hard question for yourself to answer, by locating a problem or conflict, by picking a few key passages and annotating them copiously).

3. Don't rely exclusively on a single secondary source for information or opinion in a research paper. If you do, your paper may be less well-informed and balanced that it should be, and moreover you may be lulled into plagiarizing the source. Using several different sources forces you to step back and evaluate or triangulate them.

4. When you take notes, take pains to distinguish the words and thoughts of the source from your own, so you don't mistake them for your own later. Adopt these habits in particular:

5. Take notes actively, not passively. Don't just copy down the source's words or ideas, but record your own reactions and reflections, questions and hunches. Note where you find yourself resisting or doubting or puzzling over wha t a source says; jot down possible arguments or observations you might want to make. These will provide starting points when you turn to write your paper; and they will help keep you from feeling overwhelmed by your sources—or your notes.

6. Don't try to sound more sophisticated or learned than you are. Your papers aren't expected to sound as erudite as the books and articles of your expert sources, and indeed your intelligence will emerge most clearly in a plain, d irect style. Moreover, once you begin to appropriate a voice that isn't yours, it becomes easier accidentally to appropriate words and ideas—to plagiarize. Also remember that, when asked to write a research paper using secondary sources, you are expected to learn from those sources but not to have the same level of knowledge and originality, or to resolve issues that experts have been debating for years. Your task is to clarify the issues and bring out their complexity. The way you organize the material t o do this, if you take the task seriously, will be original.

7. If you feel stuck, confused, or panicked about time, or if you are having problems in your life and can't concentrate, let your instructor or section leader know. Make contact by e-mail, if it's easier for you, but do make con tact—even if you feel embarrassed because you haven't attended lectures or section or think you're the only student in the class who is having trouble (you aren't), or if you will have to lose points for a late paper. Losing points will be a much smaller event, in the story of your life, than being required to withdraw for plagiarism.

8. Don't ask to borrow another student's paper if you are stuck or running late with an assignment. Reading it will probably discourage or panic rather than inspire you, and it may tempt you to plagiarize. Instead, ask the student to help you brainstorm some of your own ideas.

9. Don't write a paper from borrowed notes, since you have no way of knowing the source or the words and ideas. They may, for example, come directly from a book or lecture, or from a book discussed in lecture.

10. Don't do the actual writing of a paper with another student, or split the writing between you—unless you have explicit permission. Even if you collaborate on a project, you're expected to express the results in your own words.

11. Don't submit to one class a paper—or even sections of a paper—that you have submitted or will submit to another class, without first getting the written permission of both instructors and filing the permission with your Senior Tutor or Assistant Dean.

12 Always back up your work on diskette, and make a hard copy each time you end a long working session or finish a paper. This will reduce your chances of finding yourself in a desperate situation caused by computer failure.

Don't pretend that you never encountered the source; but don't panic either. If it's your major idea and you're near the end of work on the paper, finish writing your argument as you have conceived it. Then look closely at the source in question: chances are that its idea isn't exactly the same as yours, that you have a slightly different emphasis or slant, or that you are considering somewhat different topics and evidence. In this case you can either mention and cite the source in the course of your argument ("my contention, like Ann Harrison's, is that..." or "I share Ann Harrison's view that..."), but stress the differences in your account, what you have noticed that Harrison hasn't. Or you can go back and rec ast your argument slightly, to make it distinct from the source's. If the argument in the source really is the same as yours, and you are in the midst of a long paper, go to your instructor, who may be able to suggest a slightly different direction for yo ur paper. If you aren't writing a big paper, and haven't time to recast, use a note of acknowledgement:

12. In the final stages of writing this paper I discovered Ann Harrison's article "Echo and her Medieval Sisters," Centennial Review 26.4 (Fall 1982), 326-340, which comes to the same conclusion. See pp. 331-2.

Don't try to use such a note to cover plagiarism. Your instructor will know from your paper whether you had your own, well-developed ideas before reading the source, and may ask you to produce your rough notes or drafts. (To be safe, always hold on to your notes and drafts until a paper has been returned.)

- Extract from WRITING WITH SOURCES: A Guide for Harvard Students, by Gordon Harvey, Expository Writing Program, Copyright 1995, The President and Fellows of Harvard University Chapter Three: Misuse of Sources

(Full Chapter Online)

| Course Description | Course Requirements | Reading List |
Texts Online | Author Biographies & Links | Writing Resources |

August 2, 1999


URL: http://www.unet.brandeis.edu/~teuber/courses.html
mailto: teuber@brandeis.edu
Andreas Teuber's Home Page