The Use of Source Materials

In the preparation of research papers students will be obliged to consult other written sources -- books, periodicals, journals and the like. Immediately it becomes the student's responsibility to indicate which parts of the manuscript are the student's own and which parts have been borrowed from some other source. It is important to understand that this responsibility applies not only to particular facts or ideas, but also to the language (or even to the particular pattern of organization) in which this information appears. Once a paper is turned in, the reader has the right to assume that whatever appears in the paper --unless otherwise indicated -- is either the student's own work, or is material of such common knowledge to anyone familiar with the area of research that it can be found in almost every book on the subject.

Please understand that the borrowing of information, interpretation, ideas, language, or organizational patterns, is not in and of itself good or bad. Likewise, the presence or absence of borrowed material does not ensure a successful or unsuccessful paper. The significant question is whether or not the borrowing is clearly indicated wherever it occurs, even if this means footnoting every line of the paper. The problem of borrowing and its correct acknowledgment a problem not only for college students. Everyone who has ever had anything to say on paper -- or to say at all -- has been indebted to someone else for some ideas and some phrasing. Wherever these ideas or facts or language can be traced to their point of origin, the indication of this original source becomes a matter of accuracy and honesty for the author.

What is Borrowed: The problem for students is not that they usually disagree with this principle, but that they are not quite sure how to put it into effective practice. Since almost all the material and the language has in a sense been derived from somebody else, how much is to be acknowledged officially? Perhaps a good rule of thumb is to ask this question: "Could a reader consult the books and articles listed in your paper's bibliography -- which should include every work which has been used in even the smallest way -- and recognize sentences, phrases, striking words, patterns of organization, interpretations, attitudes, points of view, ideas, or facts as deriving from any one of these sources?" If the answer to this question is yes, the student must formally indicate those passages which contain the recognizable material through footnotes or citations. Any clear parallels between the manuscript and any of its sources must be clearly acknowledged. To the extent that this does not occur, the author has engaged in the academic crime of plagiarism.

Documentation of Borrowing: Borrowing of every kind except one is acknowledged either through footnotes or citations. Ordinarily the footnote's superscript or the citation is placed immediately after the material whose borrowing is to be acknowledged. Each different source referred to requires its own footnote or citation, even if this means including several footnotes or citations within a single sentence. If material from a single source is used intermittently throughout one paragraph, a single footnote at the end of the paragraph is sufficient -- except where something is actually quoted. However, this footnote should make clear to the reader that it refers to more than just the last sentence of the paragraph. If, however, the material borrowed from a single source will fill more than one paragraph, the footnote should come at the end of the first sentence in the first paragraph involved, and the footnote should then read something like this: "For the information and general point of view in the following paragraphs, I am indebted to V.O. Key (1965: 125-130)".

The one kind of borrowing for which the footnote or citation alone is not enough is the borrowing of language. Whenever another person's pattern of words is borrowed -- whether it is a whole paragraph, a single sentence, a phrase, or even one striking word -- the student must indicate the borrowing by the use of quotation marks ("...") to enclose the words which have been borrowed -- just these words, no more and no fewer. If a whole paragraph or a whole sentence is borrowed, the placement of the quotation marks is easy -- one set at the beginning of the paragraph or sentence, and the other at the end. If smaller elements are borrowed, the quotation marks would enclose only the phrase or word actually borrowed. If several borrowed elements appear in the same sentence and they all came from the same source, one footnote or citation at the end of the sentence would be understood to acknowledge all quotations. If the borrowed elements are from different sources, the author is obliged to indicate a footnote or citation immediately after each element. Remember, borrowed language must be acknowledged in exactly this way -- even if the ideas it expresses are commonplace and would not, for themselves alone, be footnoted.

Borrowing Wisely: Students are understandably concerned about the impact of a large amount of borrowed material upon the evaluation of their work. Although this concern should never motivate the student to resort to plagiarism, it is legitimate to wonder about the relationship between the volume of borrowed material and the grade which will be received. Ultimately, of course, this is a matter to be clarified with each instructor individually. However, there are some general guidelines.

We can distinguish between at least two general types of papers typically assigned to students. Interpretative papers usually require students to express their understanding of a particular topic as well as any opinions and/or elaborations they have on the topic. We would generally expect to see a relatively small amount of borrowed material in this type of manuscript. Some borrowing usually involves reading material which helps the student to understand and describe the topic. Additionally, the instructor may require students to consult several other authors who have also endeavored to explain and interpret the topic. This type of paper is designed to illustrate the student's capacity for relatively independent thought. In most instances, the use of excessive borrowing in this type of `paper will negatively impact the grade earned.

Literature review papers are quite different. They essentially require the student to report and summarize what others have written regarding a particular topic. We would generally expect a relatively large volume of borrowed material to appear in this type of paper. Such a paper places less of a premium on independent thought and more of an emphasis on understanding, reporting, and especially organizing a normally large volume of other authors' research. In this situation, there would normally be a positive relationship between the amount of borrowed material and the grade earned.

The Mosaic Mistake: Regardless of which type of paper is involved, students must carefully avoid what can be called the "mosaic" approach. This refers to a paper which is not organized in terms of general ideas, arguments, or debates in the literature, but rather takes an author-by-author approach to the presentation of material and ideas. More often than not the material included in such a paper is presented in a chronological fashion -- i.e., the first author in time said this, the second author in time said this, etc. Rather obviously, the literature review type of paper is more prone to this problem. This mosaic orientation will almost invariably lead to a poor grade. Even in the case of the literature review, material should be presented in the form of general arguments being dealt with and positions taken by those who have already written in the area.

Leave Time To Think: If there is any single cause for both of these problems in the writing of college research papers -- the failure to acknowledge borrowed materials, and the failure to borrow wisely -- it is the absence of reflection on the subject after the student has investigated the sources and before beginning to write. Ideally, the student should begin the investigation with some provisional point of view already in mind, or with the intention to discover one during research. When the investigation of the literature is completed, the student's notes should be reviewed carefully and then put them aside. The student should then think: "After all this research, what seems to be most significant? Why? What details, or facts, or observations lead to these conclusions?" Still away from one's notes, the student should rough out the pattern the paper will take. Only then ought the notes be reviewed again, now freshly meaningful in the light of the student's own reflections. Then, with the notes again out of sight, the student should compose the paper in his/her own language, drawing on the research material whenever it is useful to do so -- for some supporting facts, for a particularly penetrating observation, for an exact phrase or sentence which is especially striking in its way of making a point. Used in this way the research materials do not control, oppress, or overwhelm the student. Moreover such an approach helps to avoid both plagiarism and unwise borrowing.

A paper which is nothing but a mosaic of other people's ideas, facts, language, can be either incompetent or dishonest -- or both. If the borrowed material is accurately acknowledged, the paper will only be incompetent. If the borrowed material is not properly acknowledged, the work has been plagiarized and becomes dishonest. For this kind of dishonesty -- even if it occurs only in one portion of the whole paper -- the Department of Political Science, the College of Arts and Sciences, and Kansas State University imposes the severest penalties.

Jim Franke and Laurie Bagby
Kansas State University, 2004