Plagiarism, Its Permutations, and How to Avoid Them

There Are Few Clear Guidelines

By: - Jan 09, 2024

Plagiarism has been very much in the news.  Even the recent president of Harvard has been under the gun. And yet there seems to be no firm guidelines to instruct non-academics and even academics as to how to spot evidence of plagiarism.  What follows is a meditation on plagiarism and how to avoid it.

Except to give instructions as to how to write endnotes, The Chicago Manual of Style—every academic’s bible—barely touches on the subject of plagiarism. But the brief cautions advanced are worth quoting:  “Importance of attribution.  We all reuse of others’ materials, it is important to identify the original as the source.  This not only bolsters the claim of fair use, it also helps avoid any accusation of plagiarism.  Nothing elaborate is required; a standard footnote will suffice…”[i]  This means, of course, enclosing direct quotations with quotation marks.

The CMS does have a caution about paraphrasing that needs to be reproduced here as well: “Paraphrasing.  Bear in mind that although fair use [rules] will protect verbatim copying, unfair use will not be excused by paraphrasing.  Traditional copyright doctrine treats extensive paraphrase as merely disguised copying.  Thus, fair-use analysis will be the same for both.  Paraphrase of small quantities of material, on the other hand, may not constitute copying at all, so that fair-use analysis would never come into play.”  The last sentence, we have to admit, allows for some wiggle room depending on the definition of “small quantities.”[ii]

Aside from the CMS, very little has been written about plagiarism for the humanities and social sciences.  

We might return to the March 1966 issue of The Art Bulletin, which published art historian George Levitine’s “Letter to the Editor.” Levitine cautioned that acknowledgments are necessary whenever one gives “any degree of development to ideas or facts which have been already presented in an earlier publication by another scholar.”[iii]

The development of ideas and unique interpretations need attribution, but in many cases facts may already be in the public domain, for example: “John Singer Sargent was born in 1856.” 

But unique facts, for example finding the street number of the address in Florence where Sargent was born requires research and whoever has done that research should be acknowledged.

Levitine concludes: “What is really involved is not indebtedness but precision.”  I would maintain that both are involved.

Simple rules are in order.  Give the full citation following CMS guidelines.  But perhaps you already discovered a fact before you read someone else’s earlier scholarship.  Then you might add: “first cited in XXX.”   Or you might say, “XXX came to the same conclusion in XXX.”  This is also an opportunity to thank that other scholar.

Do not make up citations.  I have known instances when a scholar (but more usually a student) feels it necessary to have her/his ideas verified by a well-known scholar by citing fabricated sources.

Do not invent an interpretation by another scholar and then attack that author for the fabricated interpretation.  That happened to me. A NYTimes critic once slammed me for a historical assertation that I never had made.  Another scholar, wanting to make the point of how wrong I was in my interpretations, invented an interpretation that she attributed to me.  She cited the page numbers so I could precisely study my actual analyses written several decades before. I had made no such interpretation as she had assigned to me.  I privately called her on it, and she apologized.

Self-plagiarism.  I have always thought that I could quote myself without using quotation marks, but it is best to paraphrase and in the footnote say:  “A fuller discussion of this issue can be found in my XXX.”  However, I know of a well-known British literary critic who was criticized for repeating his old ideas for newer publications.

When things go wrong:  In my experience in editing multi-authored art catalogues, I find needed citations can be inadvertently lost.  For example, I once had to tell a scholar to drastically cut his article.  He did so, but in his hurry he cut paragraphs that had the citations without carrying those citations over to revised paragraphs.

Some prolific popular historians have been accused of plagiarism, which can happen when they rely on research assistants to analyze data and other scholars’ research.  Those assistants might write down a passage verbatim without quotation marks.  The famous historian then uses the passage as if it were her/his own.

Avoid accusations of plagiarism.  If you have gone to a specialized library or archive to do research, then say in your acknowledgments: “I want to thank the staff at XXX Library for helping me with my research.”  That reassures your reader that you actually went to the archive. 

Avoid assigning favorite topics to students in which you plan to research and publish yourself. The student may well pick your brain and present your ideas as her/his own.  Then when you get around to writing up your own interpretation for publication that student might claim their own prior originality.  I once backed out of directing a thesis on a topic I was going to publish on myself.  Another prickly faculty member was convinced I would plagiarize the student’s research.  By avoiding reading the student’s thesis, I protected myself.

Directing dissertations can be a fruitful collaboration between student and mentor.  The mentor may rewrite a student’s sentence, which is intended for the student to use for clarification. But the student still needs to acknowledge those specific instances or simply use the mentor’s sentence or paraphrase as a springboard for rethinking issues.

Academic writing is a fraught business. Your enemies can take you down if you err. The academic world of research in the humanities and social sciences needs clear guidelines.[iv]


i The Chicago Manual of Style (15th edition) (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2003), Paragraph 4.83, p. 137.

ii Op. Cit, Paragraph 48.0, p. 136.

iii George Levitine, “Letter to the Editor,” The Art Bulletin 48:1 (March 1966), p. 125.

  1.  We have not addressed the inroads that Artificial Intelligence has made in the fair use debate.