Plagiarism and citation : A guide for students | The Open College of the Arts
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Plagiarism and citation : A guide for students

Plagiarism is a scary word, with connotations of academic malpractice, cheating in exams, and dodgy essay-writing websites. In practice, however, plagiarism is just as often accidental as deliberate, and can easily stem from some simple misunderstandings about research practice.

Plagiarism is any situation where an author passes off someone else’s work as their own. This can be malicious, if someone is trying to take the credit for another’s effort, or unintentional, where deficiencies in citation lead to the impression that text taken from a source is actually by the author. Either way, however, plagiarism is a very serious problem if it’s identified in your academic work, and can lead to significant penalties at assessment, or in extreme cases, expulsion from your degree programme. Because of this, it’s very important that all students have an understanding of what constitutes plagiarism, and why.

In this blog post we’ll take a look at how to avoid accidental plagiarism in your degree work, and look more generally at good citation practice.

We’re going to use the example of an essay to illustrate good and bad practice. Our hypothetical essay is going to be about the composer Johannes Brahms. Let’s say we’re writing this essay, and we want to include a paragraph about Brahms’ childhood. Our research has found the following three sources:

Source 1:
It was never doubted that Johannes would become a musician, not because he shows talent for music, but because it assumed that a son learnt his father’s craft. At seven Brahms began his ‘apprenticeship’, learning the piano with an excellent teacher, Otto Friedrich Willibald Cossell. He learnt quickly and was soon being called upon to contribute to the family finances, playing with his father at night in the taverns and dance halls on Hamburg Hill. Some of his later admirers, especially concerned female admirers, harboured a suspicion that the lax morality of these bordellos and banlieux had caused him psychological damage, and that this may have accounted for his inhibitions with regard to women.
Brahms, Neunzig, Hans A., Haus Publishing, London 2003 (page 18)
https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=9To5t5rZn0cC&pg=PA15&dq=brahms+childhood&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwin9MTVhIrmAhUdQhUIHc9QCGIQ6AEIYzAI#v=onepage&q=brahms%20childhood&f=false
Source 2:
Johannes Brahms was born on 7 May, 1833 in Hamburg. His father, Johann Jakob Brahms, was a musician from Heide, who came to Hamburg to pursue a career in music. His mother, Johanna Henrika Christiane Nissen, was a seamstress. He was born the second of their three children.
Thefamouspeople.com accessed 27.11.2019
https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/johannes-brahms-395.php
Source 3:
According to Siegfried Ochs, Brahms is supposed to have observed: “People always say I am rude and tactless. Where should I have learned tact? I had to play in sailors’ dives in my childhood so as not to starve. You don’t learn anything good there.” Kurt Hofmann, however, pointed out that the formulation “sailors’ dives” was not only imprecise but altogether incorrect. In his view, Brahms played the piano not in establishments of low repute but in simply ordinary, and sometimes even genteel, ones.
Johannes Brahms. “Free but Alone”, Floros, Constantin, Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main 2010 (page 6)
https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=jfhUIP4P_l0C&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
It would be easy to simply combine the first two of these texts to create a short summary of Brahms’ childhood, for example:
Johannes Brahms was born on 7 May, 1833 in Hamburg. His father, Johann Jakob Brahms, was a musician from Heide, who came to Hamburg to pursue a career in music. His mother, Johanna Henrika Christiane Nissen, was a seamstress. He was born the second of their three children. It was never doubted that Johannes would become a musician, not because he shows talent for music, but because it assumed that a son learnt his father’s craft. At seven Brahms began his ‘apprenticeship’, learning the piano with an excellent teacher, Otto Friedrich Willibald Cossell. He learnt quickly and was soon being called upon to contribute to the family finances, playing with his father at night in the taverns and dance halls on Hamburg Hill. Some of his later admirers, especially concerned female admirers, harboured a suspicion that the lax morality of these bordellos and banlieux had caused him psychological damage, and that this may have accounted for his inhibitions with regard to women.

While this paragraph contains a lot of information which is relevant to our topic, it is presented in a way which is unacceptable in academic writing, as it plagiarises two sources. By using text from other sources without using proper citation we give the impression that we have written it all ourselves, as it doesn’t cite any sources, or show where quotations begin and end. 

There are several ways to avoid plagiarism in this context. The simplest way is to use quotations:

A biographical article about Brahms on thefamouspeople.com summarises the situation in which he grew up: “Johannes Brahms was born on 7 May, 1833 in Hamburg. His father, Johann Jakob Brahms, was a musician from Heide, who came to Hamburg to pursue a career in music. His mother, Johanna Henrika Christiane Nissen, was a seamstress. He was born the second of their three children.”(1) Hans A Neunzig goes into more detail about how Brahms became a musician: “It was never doubted that Johannes would become a musician, not because he shows talent for music, but because it assumed that a son learnt his father’s craft. At seven Brahms began his ‘apprenticeship’, learning the piano with an excellent teacher, Otto Friedrich Willibald Cossell. He learnt quickly and was soon being called upon to contribute to the family finances, playing with his father at night in the taverns and dance halls on Hamburg Hill.”(2) It seems that these experiences had a lasting effect on him, later in life he was quoted as saying: “People always say I am rude and tactless. Where should I have learned tact? I had to play in sailors’ dives in my childhood so as not to starve. You don’t learn anything good there.”(3)
  1. Thefamouspeople.com
  2. Brahms, Neunzig, Hans A., 18
  3. Johannes Brahms. “Free but Alone”, Floros, Constantin. 6

However, while building an essay from direct quotes can show that we’ve found and summarised information, it doesn’t show much real critical engagement. Instead, we can use the information in these sources to formulate our own take on the subject:

Born in 1833 in Hamburg, Brahms was the son of a musician father and a seamstress mother.(1) It was expected that a son continue his father’s craft, and so the young Brahms began piano lessons at the age of seven, quickly becoming skilled enough to join his father performing as part of the Hamburg nightlife.(2) These early public performances clearly had a profound effect on him: later in life he was quoted as saying “people always say I am rude and tactless. Where should I have learned tact? I had to play in sailors’ dives in my childhood so as not to starve. You don’t learn anything good there.”(3) Some of Brahms’ admirers even suspected these experiences were responsible for his notorious romantic inhibitions(4) but more recent scholarship has called into question just how debauched these “sailors’ dives” really were. They may in fact have been not “establishments of low repute” but “simply ordinary, and sometimes even genteel”.(5) This raises an interesting question of why Brahms would exaggerate, intentionally or not, the coarseness of these venues.
  1. Thefamouspeople.com
  2. Brahms, Neunzig, Hans A., 18
  3. Johannes Brahms. “Free but Alone”, Floros, Constantin. 6
  4. Brahms, Neunzig, Hans A., 18
  5. Johannes Brahms. “Free but Alone”, Floros, Constantin. 6

This version presents the same information as the previous two, but summarises and compares it in a much more critically engaged way, drawing out the relationships between the sources, and using them to suggest new questions and areas of investigation.

Hopefully this example has clarified any confusion you had over how to cite your sources, and avoid plagiarism. There is more information about plagiarism in the student handbook, and if you have any specific concerns your tutor will be able to advise you on the best course of action.

[Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash]

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Posted by author: Desmond Clarke
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