When is it Plagiarism?

Summer is an important time for kids to recharge their emotional and mental batteries. As parents and educators, it is easy to forget that as students, they are under a lot of pressure and face stressful challenges everyday. One stresser that I’ve had come up many times with students is whether or not what they are writing is PLAGIARISM.  Here are two relieving ways to be 100% positive you are not plagiarizing:
We will use the example of writing a research paper on famous scientists.  Your teacher tells you that you have to submit your final paper to Turnitin.com and get back a 100% green, plagiarism-free, paper.  Well, I can tell you right now that will be a challenge.
First of all, there are only so many ways to say things. Phrases like, “Copernicus was a Renaissance era mathematician and astronomer” are going to be flagged because that exact wording is in (according to Google) “About 257,000 results”.  Nevertheless, Turnitin.com will highlight it and students will worry about not being allowed to submit their paper to their teacher.  Stressful. Students should not have to deal with unproductive distractions like this when they should be focusing on the quality of their work. The solution here, at least the only one I can think of and have recommended, is to remind students of this fact in advance. However, as a parent when your child is freaking out, tell them to remind their teacher of this fact. All you can do sometimes is stand your ground and defend yourself and your work. (Frankly this is a good skill that will be needed upon entering the business world, not to mention college.) If you know that what you wrote falls into this category, know you have NOT plagiarized anything.
Secondly, plagiarism is, as defined by dictionary.com: “an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author“.  This simply means that if you use someone’s research as research YOU did that you’ve in fact stolen their intellectual property. That IS bad, and there is NO excuse for it.  However, If I am writing a paper on Copernicus and want to discuss his childhood I will read and learn about it. Then as I am writing, I might feel like what I’m writing sounds very similar to what the article said. This can feel like plagiarism, however it is not. There is a fine line here and it is easy to cross. Nevertheless, you know that you are simply writing about something you’ve learned.  You have to trust yourself and understand that plagiarism is an INTENTIONAL choice to make a bad decision.
So, simply put,
1) You have to trust yourself.
2) Have the confidence to stand by your work.
3) Above all, understand that changing your work to prove you haven’t plagiarized, at the expense of your work’s quality, should not be necessary.
Just do your best. Stay honest. And, when in doubt, cite it. You can never cite too much.