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COMM 436/636, History of the Mass Media:

What is plagiarism?

Begin with the movie (2:22)!

(By Ross Collins, professor of communication, North Dakota State University)

Some history students seem a bit confused when they write historical essays or research using material other historians have written. Is it wrong to copy names and dates from other writers? Is it all right to copy and paste paragraphs from other writers? The rule should be clear cut. Usually it is: if you copy and paste another person's work without giving that person credit, you are plagiarizing, that is, stealing another person's work. Okay, but here are some nuances. If you copy and give credit, but don't put quote marks around the copied text, is it plagiarism? For instance, from Lecture Synopsis Six, I write:

Hitler's interest in media control and propaganda was so strong that he created a ministry for it, headed by Dr. Josef Goebbels (1933-45). Goebbels set up a control so sweeping that nothing in Germany escaped; effectively content of all the media was dictated by the government. The ministry relied on Hitler's belief that propaganda must appeal to "the masses," and not "the intellectuals," and that it must be based on emotional themes, simple slogans and themes, repetition, common enemy, a hero figure, cult of violence, and lies or half-truths. Propaganda was extremely successful in Germany. Censorship was complete.

You copy this in your own essay, adding (Collins, Lecture Synopsis Six) after. Is that wrong? What if you copy and paste a number of paragraphs? Well, here we're in a gray area, but the general standard is this: do your own writing. That means do not copy a large quantity of text, even if you cite a reference, unless it's absolutely necessary. And if it's absolutely necessary, indent the paragraph as a separate text block, such as:

Hitler's interest in media control and propaganda was so strong that he created a ministry for it, headed by Dr. Josef Goebbels (1933-45). Goebbels set up a control so sweeping that nothing in Germany escaped; effectively content of all the media was dictated by the government. The ministry relied on Hitler's belief that propaganda must appeal to "the masses," and not "the intellectuals," and that it must be based on emotional themes, simple slogans and themes, repetition, common enemy, a hero figure, cult of violence, and lies or half-truths. Propaganda was extremely successful in Germany. Censorship was complete. (Collins, Lecture Synopsis Six)

This makes it perfectly clear that the text is a direct quote, and not your own words. But it's much better to copy smaller pieces and put them in quote marks. This means that basically you develop the text yourself, based on knowledge you've gained from probably several sources.

Let's take an example. On the class web site Lecture Synopsis Eleven, I write about newspaper development in the paragraph below.

Technology has often driven changes in mass media, and the new technology of the 1880s was the telephone and typewriter. The telephone allowed true reporting as we know it today, as reporters could now put together a story in hours instead of days or weeks. The typewriter, along with a machine called the Mergenthaler (inventor's name) Linotype, which set lead type automatically, also made it easier for newspapers to reach more people faster. The great economic growth of the United States during this time coincided with great interest in culture and the importance of education. By 1900 there were 6,000 high schools in the country, compared with 100 in 1860. While it's true that at the turn of the century the average American still only had a fifth-grade education, this was enough to read. Literacy reached 90 percent.

Let's say you want to use some of this information for your own essay. How might you do it? Well, based on all the information you gathered and read for your essay, you might begin in this way:

Two of the most important inventions that made modern mass media possible were the telephone and typewriter, common by the 1880s. Both made possible the kind of fast production of news we expect today. "Reporters could now put together a story in hours instead of days or weeks." (Collins, Lecture Synopsis Eleven). Now that people could get their news faster, they also demanded faster production of news. And beyond that, more people could read, and the more they could read, the more they wanted to read. High school education became more and more common, as high schools were built--6,000 by 1900, compared with 100 only 40 years earlier (Collins, Lecture Synopsis Eleven). Even without a high school education, most people could read by 1900.

As you can see, the information in the second paragraph is basically the same, but I've put it together in a new way, with my own insights from other research. Actual figures (or historical names) are credited with a reference, but are not necessarily copied word for word. Direct quotes also are referenced, but are short, and in quote marks.

It's usually hard to write history in your own words if you base your information on one or two sources. That's because you really don't know enough about the topic yourself. You haven't learned, so you're just repeating what the other person said. After you've gone through several sources, though, you've had the information from a variety of approaches. You've been able to evaluate several authors and their ideas, and from that, formulate your own idea based on the material. It's a lot easier to do your own writing if you have a depth of knowledge about your topic. And to do that, usually you must do more work than a quick reference to Wikipedia. Okay, yeah, I know that actually some of us can rewrite anything from anything. But that takes practice, and it takes a fair amount of background and facility with the language. The key is this: if you rewrite using your own words, it's your own work, and not plagiarism, even if you don't write as well as an accomplished author.

Changing a few words

If you are supposed to write using your own words, what about changing a few words, such as those below in bold face?

Hitler's interest in media control and propaganda was so strong that he set up a ministry for it, headed by Dr. Josef Goebbels (1933-45). Goebbels set up a control so vast that nothing in Germany escaped; effectively content of all the media was dictated by the authorities. The ministry relied on Hitler's belief that propaganda must appeal to "the masses," and not "the intellectuals," and that it must be based on emotional themes, simple slogans and themes, repeating the slogans, common enemy, a hero figure, cult of violence, and lies or half-truths.

The answer is that changing a few words is not enough. It's still considered plagiarism.

Borrowing ideas

Generally, you can't plagiarize the general concepts and ideas, although if you present an idea as if it's original to you, someone who reads your work is going to say, "what a jerk, he stole that idea from someone else." How to tell? It depends on the idea. For instance, if I write, "World War I can be blamed on many global currents at the beginning of the twentieth century, but Germany probably is most directly responsible." Did I borrow someone else's idea? Well, yeah, but not really one person--this is a generally accepted version of many historians. But if I write, "World War I can be blamed on war-mongering politics and treachery based on expansionist ambitions of Luxemburg," well, that's a pretty unique interpretation. If it's not my own development, it needs to be credited to its author.