Accidental plagiarism happens when an author unintentionally omits attribution in their work and, as such, fails to identify one or more sources that they used.
According to Jane Goodall, this is what happened to her with her most recent book, Seeds of Hope, which was held up for nearly a year after experts at the Washington Post discovered that at least 12 sections of the book were lifted from websites. In an interview, Goodall blamed the plagiarism on her “hectic work schedule” and her “chaotic method of note taking,” both of which she said led to her inadvertently leaving out attribution and omitting quote marks.
Regardless of whether or not this is what happened to Goodall, poor note taking can and often does lead to accidental plagiarism. Unfortunately, accidental plagiarism is not a matter to take lightly.
In many schools and publications, accidental plagiarism is treated just as serious as intentional plagiarism. But even where it isn’t, it can be difficult to prove that an omitted citation was a mistake and not an attempt to cheat. This forces many students to battle through disciplinary hearings and risk serious action being taken against them.
Fortunately though, with proper note taking skills, accidental plagiarism can be easily avoided. All it requires is a little bit of planning and caution as you gather your information.
Keep Notes in a Separate File: Though it may be tempting to copy and paste notes into your working document, that’s an easy way to lose track of the text that you bring in. Keep your notes in a separate file and switch back and forth between them. While it may be a bit slower, it prevents any accidental contamination of outside writing into your writing.
Always Include Attribution: Never copy a passage or take down a piece of information without saying where you got it from. Even if you don’t plan on using it in your work, having that information with the content can keep you from hunting for it or, even worse, leaving it out later. Likewise, be certain to indicate what is and is not a direct quote, even in your notes.
Copy Passages Directly Into Your Notes: Don’t attempt to paraphrase when working with your notes, when possible, copy the passages of interest directly. Do the paraphrasing in your working document. Paraphrasing while gathering information opens the door to confusing someone else’s words for your own or putting inadequately paraphrased content into your paper.
Consider Using a Research Tool: Tools like Diigo make it easy to find, highlight and organize information that you want to include in your paper. Best of all, with these tools, the attribution always stays with the work in the form of a link, making it much more difficult to lose track of where something came from.
When in Doubt, Go Back to the Source: If your notes are unclear or dubious, go back to the original source. While redoing research is never fun, it’s much better than having to deal with plagiarism allegations.
In the end, cases of accidental plagiarism are, almost always, easily avoided. While everyone makes mistakes, with proper note taking techniques, the number of mistakes can be greatly minimized and it can be almost impossible for those errors to rise to the level of plagiarism.
Best of all, these techniques don’t only help you avoid plagiarizing, but they also help you create better papers by making your notes and information easier to access and more accurate.
So while good note taking takes a little bit of extra effort, it not only helps you avoid much larger headaches, but helps the quality of your work all around.