My views on plagiarism and intellectual honesty.

I have been involved in several recent episodes in which students plagiarized material for use in term papers, candidacy proposals, etc. I have always taken action in these cases, and the defense has always been ignorance. This document is my attempt to forestall future events of this nature, and to help students understand what it means to be intellectually responsible for their actions

Here is the official University of Maryland definition of academic dishonesty, quoted from
and similarly from

"ACADEMIC DISHONESTY: any of the following acts, when committed by a student, shall constitute academic dishonesty:

(a)  CHEATING: intentionally using or attempting to use unauthorized materials, information, or study aids in any academic exercise.

(b)  FABRICATION: intentional and unauthorized falsification or invention of any information or citation in an academic exercise.

(c)  FACILITATING ACADEMIC DISHONESTY: intentionally or knowingly helping or attempting to help another to violate any provision of this Code.

(d)  PLAGIARISM: intentionally or knowingly representing the words or ideas of another as one's own in any academic exercise."

In my opinion, the University definition of plagiarism needs to be explained more clearly and specifically in order to prevent unintentional violations more effectively, as well as to enable appropriately serious action if the definition is violated. Here are my own personal rules, which I believe to be consistent with University policy:

Everyone uses literature sources or laboratory documents in writing papers and proposals. The appropriate way to do use these sources is to read and digest the material, and synthesize it with other information and your own thoughts and opinions. Finally, and only after internalizing the material, write down your own understanding of the topic in the context of your other ideas. It is almost never a good idea to have source documents right in front of you as you type your own ideas. Intellectual honesty means never writing something that you don’t understand or didn't compose.

The plagiarism line is crossed (at least for me) when you perform any of actions below. The comments after each statement give additional advice on general good scholarship practices:

  1. Use another’s ideas without proper citation. Besides appropriate citation, it is best to use original sources where possible, but don’t cite a document you haven’t looked at. Excessive use of web page sources for scientific papers is sloppy and dangerous, as you are trusting an unknown person to report accurately on the primary data.
  2. Quote text from a source without the explicit use of quotation marks. A citation is not enough. My personal limit is six words in a row from any source, more than that must be "quoted." This is the most common transgression I’ve seen, especially from inexperienced writers. Just because a source says exactly what you want to say, just better than you can say it yourself, does not mean that you can use it directly. Excessive but properly attributed quotation is not plagiarism, although it raises doubts as to the value of the writer’s own contribution.
  3. Use excessive paraphrasing. If you are asking yourself, “How can I use this paragraph without running into the six-words-in-a-row rule?” then you are plagiarizing.
  4. Use text from documents that you yourself have previously prepared for any purpose without full disclosure of the source. Yes, you can plagiarize yourself, and submitting similar material twice is cheating as well as plagiarism.
  5. Use text from co-authored work for any purpose without disclosing the existence and identities of co-authors, and securing their permission if possible. The use of such material is likely to be cheating as well.

It is often surprisingly easy to detect signs of plagiarism from observing changes in writing style or vocabulary. It is then often easy to prove plagiarism by skimming original sources, Google searches, etc. Please do not approach this as a game. If you plagiarize and are not caught, you have cheated yourself. If you plagiarize and are caught, you will fail the course and/or face disciplinary action. Such action may include a grade of "XF" on your transcript (indicating failure by virtue of academic dishonesty) or even expulsion from the University in egregious cases.

Plagiarism is a fundamental offense against the principles of academic integrity. If you are taking a course with me, or asking me to serve on a committee, or working with me, then this document is your first, last, and only warning that I will take the strongest possible measures to combat plagiarism. If you cannot abide by the guidelines above, now would be a good time to reconsider putting me on your committee.

Finally, as of 1/1/02 any student who works with me or has taken a course with me or has asked me to serve on a committee has been specifically told to read this specific document. You are now responsible. If you are involved in a plagiarism case, please do not attempt to argue that anything inappropriate was not done “intentionally or knowingly.”

Please let me know if you have comments or questions.

Jason D. Kahn: lab home page.