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US studies: Cite sources to avoid plagiarism
Matthew Schneeberger
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August 14, 2007

US education is built on independent research and critical inquiry as opposed to rote learning.

For the Indian student leaving for US studies, what exactly does this mean? To put it simply, a lot of reading and writing.

Yesterday, we outlined how to properly craft a research essay: introduction and conclusion, quotes and statistics, central paragraphs and a thesis statement.

Today, let's examine the steps you need to take before you type the first word -- researching your topic and citing your sources.

Research your topic

US primary and middle school may leave much to be desired, but America's higher education system is unparalleled.

One reason US universities continue to flourish is the tremendous resources available to both faculty and students.

University libraries are some of the world's finest; many contain millions of volumes and some of the rarest manuscripts known to man.

Of course, while some students consider it an honour to utilise these archives, many more groan with displeasure at the thought of spending an evening in the library stacks.

If you're plan to study in the US and avoid the library, forget it. Your assignments will demand extensive research that requires long hours and a 'hands-on' approach.

So, if you're assigned an essay on the role of farmers in the rise of Nazi Germany [Images], where do you turn? Google?

The answer is: your university's librarian.

Librarians treasure their collections, know them by heart and treat them with a mother's love. Plus, they really enjoy helping students sift through formidable mounds of data and paperwork.

Professors at US universities want your analysis and interpretation of what is called primary source material. 'Primary sources' are authentic accounts, documents, records and material that should form the basis of your research on a topic. They are far preferable to secondary source material -- someone else's interpretation of those same documents and records.

For an example, let's return to our farmers in Germany. There have undoubtedly been hundreds of books and thousands of academic articles that touch on this very question -- what role did farmers play in the rise of Nazi Germany, if any?

While it's important to refer to these books and articles while studying the background of your topic, they are secondary source materials. You should refrain from using them as the base of your paper -- try to be as free from bias and human judgement as possible.

Remember, both the librarian and your professor will be happy to assist you in finding primary source material.

In this particular case, you should identify and analyse voting records, first-person accounts and socio-economic data when crafting the Nazi farmer article. These primary sources should serve as the bulk of your citations and references.

*For instance, don't say: In Dr Thomas Thomson's article, "Farmers from Hell!" the author demonstrates that farmers from Bavaria incited anti-Semitism in the region.

*Instead, try: A review of the official minutes of the Bavarian Farmers Meeting at Munich Beer Hall shows that three anti-Semitic measures were introduced, voted on and accepted on July 17, 1932.

Even though Dr. Thomson may be perfectly correct, by relying on his interpretation, you're only presenting the issue through his perspective. Strip away the human bias and engage yourself with the hardcore data and most authentic, least disturbed material.

Plagiarism means what?

*Reshmi Mehta, who studied at Vassar College in New York, said this when asked about citing sources in the US:

"Honestly, it was crazy. American professors are obsessed with plagiarism and references. I had a teacher tell me, 'I don't care if you don't use a single word from the text -- if you gleaned an idea from it, you cite it. No exceptions.' In India, I was used to copy and pasting articles, maybe rearranging a few words, and turning in the assignment with a clear conscience. In the US, you can be expelled for doing the same thing."

Plagiarism, in the most literal sense, is directly copying someone else's work and passing it off as your own. If the work is copy-righted, plagiarism is illegal and can be punished by law. This is its most malicious avatar.

In US universities, however, plagiarism has taken on a life of its own. It's now possible to get in trouble for plagiarising without knowing where exactly you went wrong.

As a rule of thumb, cite anything you've read related to your research topic, even if you don't use it in your paper.

Make two separate components in the index of your essay -- a 'works cited' section and a 'references' section.

In the 'works cited' section, follow MLA format and use in-text citations/endnotes to highlight specific quotes, information, theories and other data that you have inserted into your paper.

In the 'references' section, list all sources that you encountered during the research process. List them by type -- Internet, books, articles, journals and others. Also, divide them into primary source material and secondary materials. Within each section, go in alphabetical order and use MLA format.

For an example, let's say you read Mr. Thomson's article, which we mentioned earlier. His thesis, that farmers helped advance Nazism, strikes a chord in you and you echo it in your essay. Even if you don't use a direct quote from his article, you must place Mr. Thomson in your 'references' section.

This is why organisation is so important when crafting essays -- you might read a theory, forget the exact source and then regurgitate the same theory on paper, in your own words. Technically, you've plagiarised someone else's material.

Also, many programmes have been designed specifically for this purpose and professors use them frequently. They search Internet and library archives, testing the similarity of essays against material on the web and on the bookshelf.

Copying and pasting from an internet site -- Wikipedia, for instance -- is the quickest way to throw your diploma out the window and into the garbage heap.

Just remember, US universities are some of the best-funded in the world and their resources are at your disposal. Use them. Never be afraid to ask for help from your professor or the librarian. And never do something if you are the least bit unsure.

One final tip: be completely transparent in your research process and document everything. This way, you'll have a record of everything you've done and your professor will be able to easily trace your tracks.

Writing essays usually proves the most difficult aspect of US education for Indian students, but it doesn't have to be. If you ask for help, follow the rules and work honestly, you'll write proper, well-structured essays in no time.

* Fabricated article for the purpose of this piece ; name changed on request

Part I: How to write a research paper

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