Clean-room writing

How to commit plagiarism

Over the last few years, I have noticed more and more problems with student plagiarism. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about where these problems come from. I don’t generally think that they are due to deliberate attempts to cheat. Rather, I think that modern tools create situations where plagiarism becomes almost inevitable unless you are both conscious of the issue and careful. In this blog post, I am going to suggest a method for avoiding plagiarism that I think most of us should adopt. It’s not a panacea, but it’s better than what most people are doing right now.

First of all, we should all agree on what plagiarism is. There are lots of sources on plagiarism, of which my favorite was produced by the Office of Research Integrity of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Roughly speaking, I tend to think of plagiarism in terms of a hierarchical classification, which goes from the grossest to the most subtle forms.

The first form involves simply cutting and pasting from a source. Most people would agree that is wrong, although a remarkable number of students appear not to entirely get that. When we think of plagiarism as cheating, this is generally what we are thinking about.

The second form, which has a very similar effect, is using someone else’s words in your text. While this sounds like cutting and pasting, it often happens in a different way, when we write something while we are looking at a source, maybe so we get some details right. People who commit this form of plagiarism are often not even aware they are doing it. The net effect though is text that generally looks an awful lot like the original source, with only a few words changed here and there. If you don’t believe that you are prone to this problem, try reading the Wikipedia’s historical summary of the third law of thermodynamics. (I picked this topic because few people know much about it. Plagiarism becomes all the more likely when writing about topics with which one is not intimately familiar.) Then immediately try to write your own text on this topic. While you are writing, keep the Wikipedia article open and look back at it for details from time to time. Most people find it very difficult to write sentences and paragraphs that differ significantly from the original text under these conditions. This is plagiarism.

If you somehow avoid writing sentences that look like those in the original text, you are likely to at least mimic the structure of the original text, with the same facts presented in the same order. This is the third and most insidious form of plagiarism. It is hard to detect, and people who commit this form of plagiarism will often deny vehemently that they have done anything wrong. However, when you do this, you have not told us what you think about a subject. You have just told us what the writer of, in this case, the Wikipedia article thinks. You may have done it in different words, but you did not organize the facts yourself, which is the key difference between original writing and plagiarism. (There are occasions when it’s appropriate to write something that is organized like someone else’s coverage of a topic. I will come back to this in a later blog post.)

Thinking about the exercise I proposed above, I would suggest that there are at least three distinct issues leading to plagiarism:

  1. Writing while looking at a source, or immediately after reading a source. It is almost impossible to come up with your own words and an original way to organize the facts when you are doing this. The perfectly good words and organization chosen by the original writer become “the obvious way” to write about a topic, and it’s virtually impossible to break out of that.
  2. Excessive reliance on a single source. If you use multiple sources to inform your thinking, the particular way any one author organized his or her writing is much less likely to have a dominant effect on how you write about something.
  3. Not having clearly distinguished research, outline, writing and revision phases in the writing process. This is perhaps the greatest failing of modern students in their approach to writing. If you start by doing some research, taking brief notes as you go, then write an outline as a way of organizing your thoughts, then write text based on your outline, and finally go through several rounds of revisions, it becomes difficult to commit plagiarism because you will really be writing about a topic from your perspective, and not from that of another writer.

How not to commit plagiarism

Having talked about these issues with many students, and given the pervasive nature of information technology, which puts sources at our fingertips almost anywhere, anytime, I have concluded that the best way to fight plagiarism is to adopt what I call clean room writing techniques. Much of what I am going to describe is essentially the research, outline, writing, revision cycle described above. However, I think that we need to go a little farther given how easy it is to unconsciously plagiarize material.

There is a similar problem in the software industry. Let’s say you want to write a piece of software that does the same thing as another existing piece of software. Because software is protected by copyright, you’re not allowed to copy someone else’s software. You may want to peek, but in the end you have to write your own, original implementation. The way this is done is to have people write the software (even if they previously peeked at the other company’s software) in a “clean room”, which is a room where you have everything you need to do your work except the other company’s software. Depending on how paranoid you are, such a room might not have a direct connection to the Internet. Sometimes, the people who peek are different from the people who write the new software. Sometimes, peeking just isn’t allowed.

To avoid plagiarism, you need to write in something like a clean-room environment. What I mean by this is that looking at your sources and writing should not occur at the same time. Your research for whatever you are writing (term paper, thesis introduction, article manuscript, …) should happen at a different time than the actual composition of text. Text should be written from notes which were not generated by simple cutting-and-pasting from a source. Yes, I know, cutting-and-pasting is quick and efficient. The problem, as explained above, is that you’re almost certain to use someone else’s words if you do that. When you take notes, write in your own words what you thought was important or interesting in some particular text you are reading.

Once you have composed a draft of a text, you can of course fact-check against the original sources. Having given the ideas your own form by writing a draft without direct access to the sources, you are much less likely to unintentionally borrow someone’s words during revision.

Note that clean-room writing does not lift the responsibility of citing your sources. Your notes should clearly link content to references, so you should be able to cite your sources as you write. Occasionally, you will need to make a note to yourself to chase down a reference later. You can still add references during the revision stage if you at least note the places in your text that will need to cite sources.

This may seem a bit radical, but I’ve seen too many students get in trouble for plagiarism over the last few years, and I know that many of them did not intend to plagiarize. It just happened, for the reasons I explained in the first part of this blog post. Eventually, you can relax this strict approach a little, but if you’re an inexperienced writer, it’s best to go into the metaphorical clean room anytime you’re writing new text.