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'Genius borrows nobly': Understanding and Avoiding Plagiarism


“Genius borrows nobly.”

                        - Ralph Waldo Emerson

The entire scholarly endeavor rests on the idea that academics conscientiously indicate how their interpretations derive from the sources they have used in their work. Accurate citation allows the reader to find and evaluate the original material that the work is based on and also illustrates the depth, breadth and quality of the author’s research. Not only the reader, but also the author can benefit from careful bibliographic practice. By documenting source material, the author differentiates between established knowledge and his or her original interpretation and analysis.

This guide is intended to help you decide when and how you need to cite your work in academic papers for the Department of English.  

The Studienführer’s Guidelines for the Preparation of Seminar Papers (Hinweise zur Anfertigung von Seminararbeiten) provides an overview of the standard citation formats used in the Anglistisches Seminar. It is available at this website ( or in print in the Glaskasten.

Direct quotations      

Every time you use a direct quotation from another work, you need to cite it with an in-text citation, footnote or endnote.  In general, direct quotations of longer than three words must be placed within quotation marks followed by a citation.  If you use a common phrase that is also present in a secondary work and happens to be longer than three words, quotation marks are unnecessary.  For example, in a paper about theater in early 18th-century England, the phrase post-Restoration English drama is bound to come up frequently and there is no need to place it in quotations and cite it.  On the other hand, short phrases or individual concepts that have been coined by the author of the work you are using should be placed in quotation marks and cited.  Thus a reference to the idea that Nazi ideology should be characterized as “reactionary modernism” should be placed within quotation marks and cited the first time it is referenced in your paper, even though you are quoting fewer than three words. (Jeffrey Herf, Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich  [Cambridge: Cambridge UP 1986; ix]).   Further citations of this particular phrase are unnecessary.


When you restate an idea from another source in your own words without using any direct quotations, you are paraphrasing.  Paraphrases do not need to be placed within quotation marks but they do need to be cited.  You also need to be careful that paraphrases are not too close to the original text.  You cannot simply replace individual words with synonyms; you need to present the ideas you borrow in a new and original form.  Here is an example:

The original text:

Susan Morgan, “Polite Lies: The Veiled Heroine of Sense and Sensibility    189

In spite of its austerity, its occasionally rigid structure, and its title, Sense and Sensibility is a brilliant and revolutionary work.  Through Elinor Dashwood, Jane Austen explores the freedom and promise contained in the relation between character and expression.


Nineteenth Century Fiction 31: 2 (Sep., 1976)

An incorrect paraphrase:

Despite its asceticism and its rather inflexible form, Sense and Sensibility is a great, cutting-edge novel.  Austen uses Elinor Dashwood to analyze the liberty and potential encompassed in the relation between expression and character (Morgan 189).

Note how the author has simply swapped words rather than restating the intent of the original statement.  Despite the presence of a citation, this passage is too close to the original.  To add insult to injury, in his or her effort to find useful synonyms, the author has actually obscured the point of the original (Austen does the exploring, not Elinor). 

A real paraphrase:

Sense and Sensibility is often dismissed as a formulaic novel, but in fact, Austen’s portrayal of Elinor Dashwood forces the reader to examine more closely the extent to which people’s presentation of themselves reflects their true character (Morgan 189).

This paraphrase is a true paraphrase because it accurately represents the idea of the original text in a new way.  You could also add a reference to the original author in the text to make it clear that this is a paraphrase:

Sense and Sensibility is often dismissed as a formulaic novel, but Susan Morgan argues convincingly that Austen’s portrayal of Elinor Dashwood forces the reader to examine more closely the extent to which people’s presentation of themselves reflects their true character (189).

Referring to the original author in the text is especially helpful if your paraphrase is longer than one sentence, since it alerts the reader up front that the following information comes from a secondary source.

Other items that need to be cited

Whenever you use graphs, images, statistics, music or film excerpts from other sources, you need to cite them.  While citing printed materials is relatively straightforward, music and film present particular problems if you do not have the screenplay or sheet music to reference, since your only option is to cite the entire film or work.  In such cases, try to give the reader as much information as possible in the text.  For instance, you can describe the action during particular film scenes to help your reader locate the source of your information: Leia’s relationship to Luke appears to be heading toward romance in the scene where they swing across a chasm to escape the approaching stormtroopers, but her attraction to Han Solo becomes more apparent during the trip to the hidden rebel base (George Lucas, dir. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. [Twentieth Century Fox, 1977; Film]).

Also, if you copy the basic structure of another author’s argument and give new supporting evidence, you need to cite that author’s work.  For example, suppose your instructor asks you to discuss whether a novel is a good example of a particular literary genre.  You find an article that argues that another novel by the same author belongs to that genre and identifies particular features that support that classification.  If you discuss those features, even if you do so in a different order or with some additions and omissions, you need to cite the article that gave you the idea to approach the assignment as you did.

Common knowledge

Most guides to avoiding plagiarism tell you that any time you use information that is not common knowledge you should cite a source for that information.  Deciding what is common knowledge is not always easy, though.  In general, any time you mention obscure facts, give statistics, refer to an argument someone else has made or present a controversial issue you should cite a source for that information.  Here are some examples:

Suppose you are writing a paper comparing the original novel Sense and Sensibility with Ang Lee’s 1995 film adaptation.  It is common knowledge that Austen’s novels are still very popular among modern readers and that film adaptations only increased that popularity, so you can safely say so without citing a source.  It is not common knowledge, however, that in 2002 over 100,000 copies of Pride and Prejudice were sold in the United States alone, so for this information you need a citation (Adelle Waldman, "Cents and Sensibility; the Surprising Truth about Sales of Classic Novels," Slate 2 April 2003. [21 Nov. 2010 ]). It is also common knowledge that Sense and Sensibility is written in indirect speech and has a third-person narrator, and that one main theme is the contrast between sensible Elinor and her headstrong and passionate sister Marianne.  When you mention the debate among scholars about whether Austen’s use of such a common theme should be considered a flaw in the novel, however, you need to refer to some of the key authorities in this debate (cf. Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas [Oxford: Oxford UP, 1975; 182-196]; Claudia Johnson, Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel [Chicago: University of Chicago P, 1988; 49-72]). You do not need to cite your own claims, so there is no need for a citation if you present your own original idea that the adaptation is so true to the novel that its few divergent scenes actually serve to clarify the narrative.  You should, however, cite the page numbers where you found supporting evidence in the original novel so your reader can follow your train of thought.  If another author has made similar but not exactly the same claims as you, include a note suggesting a comparison with that author’s work. (cf. Robynn J. Stilwell, “Sense & Sensibility: Form, Genre, and Function in the Film Score,” [Acta Musicologica 72.2 (2000): 219-240]).

When original ideas turn out not to be original

What should you do if you develop an interesting and original thesis, structure your paper around it, and only then discover that someone else already had the same idea and published an argument that parallels your own?  This is a thorny question for all scholars.  Of course, the ideal solution is to rewrite the paper, incorporating the new material and honing your own argument so it does not appear to parrot the claims of the other author.  In most cases, your original work will already have a slightly different focus or use different examples and approaches, so that you can safely add in your concurrence with the other author without having to start from scratch.  If your argument closely resembles the other author’s discussion and you do not have time to do a substantial revision of your paper, your best option is to ask for an extension of the due date so you can rework your paper.  Since part of your job as a scholar is to explore the available secondary literature, turning in a paper that demonstrates your failure to do so is rarely a good idea.  If an extension is impossible, however, you must add at least one footnote explaining that although the argument parallels that of the other author, it was, in fact, developed without consulting that author’s works.


Plagiarism is the representation of the words or ideas of others as your own original work. This includes the following:

  • Copying text from another source into your paper without putting it in quotation marks and citing it appropriately
  • Paraphrasing or summarizing the work of others without citing the ideas as theirs
  • Including images, charts or other graphics in your paper without citing their sources
  • Using ideas or information (such as statistics) developed by others without reference
  • Turning in a paper you did not write yourself

Deliberate plagiarism is considered cheating and as such is a violation of the Landeshochschulgesetz as well as the regulations of the university. See the university’s official “Satzung zur Sicherung guter wissenschaftlicher Praxis” available at  for specifics.

Cases of suspected plagiarism in the Anglistisches Seminar are adjudicated according to guidelines established by the Honor Board.

Avoiding inadvertent plagiarism

Most inadvertent plagiarism can be traced back to sloppy note-taking.  Copying sections of an original text verbatim may be the easiest way to take notes, especially when you are working with electronic texts, but it is also the easiest way to plagiarize by accident.  Even if you are careful to note all the citation information for each source, you are much more likely to forget quotation marks and citations if your notes consist primarily of copied text.  Copying directly also encourages sloppy paraphrasing when you write the paper.  When the deadline is looming, it is tempting to simply replace the words of the original with synonyms rather than expressing the idea in your own words. It is much safer to take notes in your own words, copying only particularly apt quotations and marking paraphrases as such.  Right from the start of your research, try to type the full citation for each source you use into a working bibliography; then you only need to indicate the author and page number in your notes, and you will not have to spend hours typing the bibliography the night before the paper is due.

Some inadvertent plagiarism occurs during the writing process.  It is easy to forget to close quotation marks or to accidentally delete an in-text citation as you are writing or editing.  Keeping copies of all your drafts will help you to find “lost” quotations, and doing a quick search for quotation marks in the final draft will help you to ensure that every direct quote is followed by a citation.

Writing help

Although it is crucial to give credit where credit is due in all your written work, it is not only permissible but advisable to seek and accept help from others throughout the writing process.  Scholars routinely ask colleagues for comments on their own work and it is common practice to have texts in other languages proofread by a native speaker.  You should feel free to do the same, with one exception: while professors often have a professional do a substantive line-by-line edit of their work, you should not.  Instead, talk to your instructor or ask fellow students to suggest ways to improve your work and then edit it yourself as best you can.  You do not need to include citations for informal advice or for corrections of grammar and style mistakes.  If a suggestion from someone else proves inspirational, it is courteous to acknowledge their contribution in a footnote (e.g. The author is indebted to Prof. XYZ for proposing this line of inquiry) but no further citation is necessary.


By reflecting on the arguments of others and combining them with your own ideas in your own words, you forge your own, original interpretation.  Drawing on a variety of sources not only illustrates your familiarity with the relevant literature but also allows you to position yourself among other scholars in the field to demonstrate the significance of your viewpoint. As you write, you need to give credit where credit is due, but you also need to let your own voice come through.  After all, your professor is interested in reading what you think about the topic you have chosen, not just what all the other experts think.  Borrow nobly, and all will be well.


Letzte Änderung: Jakubzik am 30.Januar 2018
Verantwortlich: Lusin, Föhr