We all know the Claudine Gay story: an alleged plagiarist fired from her position as President of Harvard University. Surely, she knew what plagiarism is and isn’t. Yet, for our purposes in clarifying it, we’ll assume she just didn’t know.
Knowing when to quote and when to paraphrase is quite an art. Basically, you don’t want to string a whole bunch of long quotes together, with a few of your own sentences connecting them, and call it a researched essay. You want to use quotes sparingly, to support your points. Paraphrasing is useful, but be careful that you don’t find yourself endlessly paraphrasing and not writing much of your own thoughts and words either. When you do paraphrase, you often need to give a citation as well.
The guiding principle: Is it your prior knowledge or not?
You must cite even material you’ve paraphrased if that paraphrased passage—whether it’s a sentence or several paragraphs—is not your knowledge. The concept of ‘your’ knowledge is very important. It’s an honor system in which you acknowledge that as you are writing you are immediately referring to the material at hand. In other words, if you have to look back and forth from an article or book to the computer screen as you are working to put a passage in your own words, then you must cite it. But if you read something days before, and studied it, so that when you’re writing your essay you’re able to do so without looking at those notes or that article, then it’s become your knowledge and you need not cite it.
There’s one exception to that, however. And that’s if what you’re writing is an original idea or thesis. You must give credit to those who have influenced your thinking. For example, take the following sentence. “The Tubes was an early-punk rock band from the 70’s and 80’s.” That’s a fact and you need not cite your source.
However, take this sentence: “All punk rock originated with the Tubes.” That’s a thesis, an idea, someone’s opinion. In that case, you have to cite your source, giving credit to the person who’s making that claim.
Learn more so you can quote less
So…how do you avoid an overreliance upon quoting and paraphrasing? Don’t ask an editing service to do that for you. That’s cheating. Do your own research, reading, and studying to become knowledgeable in the subject, so that when you sit down to write, a lot of the material comes from you, from inside, and not from your notes and sources. You need to KNOW the subject well enough so that the words you type are YOUR words, your ideas…your knowledge.
Thus, that underscores the importance of really doing your homework… literally. Read and study the subject. Make yourself a legitimate expert in the subject. Then you’ll have something to say that’s your ideas, your words, not just the ideas and words of your sources.
Give credit where credit is due
Of course, to be truly professional you must meticulously document your sources. Why? To give credit where credit is due. To protect yourself against charges of academic dishonesty. To enhance your own credibility. And to provide your readers with the source information should they care to read more about the subject.