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Avoiding plagiarism

The dictionary definition of the word plagiarize is “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own; use (another’s production) without crediting the source.”1

And it’s a huge problem in academia, as can easily be seen by a quick look at university websites. Just about every academic institution has a policy about plagiarism — and the consequences can be dire.

Some universities simply tell students not to copy more than a certain number of words — three, four or five, usually — without making it a direct quote.

Other universities even have their own definitions. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign defines it this way:

Plagiarism is using others’ ideas and/or words without clearly acknowledging the source of that information. It may be intentional (e.g., copying or purchasing papers from an online source) or unintentional (e.g., failing to give credit for an author’s ideas that you have paraphrased or summarized in your own words).2

Duke University in North Carolina puts it in these words:

Plagiarism occurs when a student, with intent to deceive or with reckless disregard for proper scholarly procedures, presents any information, ideas or phrasing of another as if they were his/her own and/or does not give appropriate credit to the original source.3

And guess what? It happens in genealogy too. But it doesn’t have to. Because Elizabeth Shown Mills has written a QuickLesson, free on her Evidence Explained website, that can keep us all on the straight and narrow.

Entitled “QuickLesson 15: Plagiarism—Five “Copywrongs” of Historical Writing,” this is a QuickLesson for all of us who write — and that should be every genealogist on the planet. And it explains and shows how to avoid five common “misconceptions and misguided habits” that lead (and mislead) us into plagiarism:

     • 1. Paraphrasing Poorly

     • 2. Misuse of Public Domain Material

     • 3. Misunderstanding the Fair Use Doctrine

     • 4. Patchworking

     • 5. Borrowing Sources4

QuickLesson 15: Plagiarism—Five “Copywrongs” of Historical Writing.”

It’s the best advice any of us could hope to get on being an ethical genealogical writer.

Read it. Take it to heart. Follow it in your work.

I’m sure going to do my best to follow it in mine.


  1. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 14 Jan 2013), “plagiarize.”
  2. Definition of plagiarism,” University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library ( : accessed 14 Jan 2013).
  3. Duke Definition of Plagiarism,” Plagiarism Tutorial, Duke University ( : accessed 14 Jan 2013).
  4. Elizabeth Shown Mills, “QuickLesson 15: Plagiarism?Five “Copywrongs” of Historical Writing,” Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage ( : 14 Jan 2013).
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