Research, Plagiarism, and Issues of Audience


Citing outside sources in an essay is a way to indicate your understanding of concepts which have been discussed by others and which you don’t have space to duplicate in your essay. You may need to do some research amongst these outside sources to clarify your understanding of concepts you may not have fully grasped from class discussion. It is important to realise that, even if you have taken away a clear understanding of the material from class, the material discussed in class is almost always a simplification, since class time is limited (and we are unable to survey all the possible evidence). Doing research can help you gain a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of the material.

Web sites have the same disadvantages as class discussion, but even the best ones are often even more simplified accounts of the material since you are not able to ask questions. As such, the internet is almost always useless as a research medium. By and large citing a web site in your essay is not much better than not citing anything. There are some notable exceptions, and I expect the situation to change slowly for the better in the next decade, but for the moment you should choose printed essays and books over the internet if you want to do quality research. Note that, although this takes longer, the understanding you get from reading a full discussion is almost always better. This does not mean that you should never turn to the internet. Web sites often give you good starting points for what types of books and articles to read. This is the way you should use them, if at all possible. As a final note, it should be said that, because printed works generally have fuller discussions than web sites, citing printed works is generally perceived by readers as more impressive. I try to take account of this in my assessments of essays for the purposes of grading.


Most people consider the deliberate submission of other people's text or ideas as their own to be morally wrong, and they don't do it. Even where the perpetrator cannot be held legally responsible for copyright infringement, the act of plagiarism is considered to be a form of theft. However, some members of society find plagiarism to be acceptable when it does not appear (to them) to cause any harm. "No harm, no foul," they say. Unfortunately, many students feel that university essays are one context where no harm is done. But plagiarism does do harm, even if indirectly. If nothing else, the act of plagiarism misprepresents the achievement of the plagiariser (especially to future employers) and helps develop dishonest habits which may lead to greater criminal activity down the line. It also skews the performance of classes, making it harder for instructors to design their courses and grade effectively. Furthermore, it helps create a culture of dishonesty within our society generally. For some recent high-profile examples of plagiarism, see the BBC report on the Plagiarism Plague.

That said, the majority of examples of plagiarism are unintentional misrepresentations of the sources of texts and ideas. Most of these examples of plagiarism arise from problems with knowing what types of material to attribute to sources and how to do so. I highly recommend the Plagiarism Prevention for Students web site at California State University, San Marcos as a guide to how to avoide plagiarism. They site also has a great deal of useful advice for how to handle and cite your sources.


For the purposes of writing literary criticism, it is generally conventional to assume that your readers will be familiar with the plot of the texts you are discussing, unless they are obscure. Generally, no plot summary is required; you should only describe the plot when directing your reader’s attention to an individual incident which you will then comment on. For instance:

When Nicholas attempts to seduce Alison, he claims that he will die for “derne love” of her. This reduces the courtly love tradition to the absurd.

For the purposes of writing essays for classes, you must also consider the relatively short length of most assignments; descriptions of the plot take up vital space which should be given over towards interpretation of the text. Since you are writing for a professor who you know to be very familiar with the text, to include such plot summary is likely to be perceived as mere filler.

You can also assume that well-known technical concepts and historical contexts for the literature you are discussing will be understood by interested readers. In general, you should only dwell on these things at length if they are more obscure or if you are going to be commenting on them or using them as a primary basis for your interpretation. That said, in essays for classes you have to assume a slightly “stupider” reader. Since your professor has to evaluate you knowledge for the purposes of grading the essay. You need to show that you have learnt and understand these concepts and contexts. So you should probably add a few extra sentences if necessary to demonstrate this. How much space you use must be balanced against the length of the essay.

Finally, an essay that is not almost totally free of mechanical errors would never be published. Whilst you may not be writing for publication, it is your professor’s job to help train you to write for the public. This includes people whose relationship with you may be professional, starting with your professor. Be advised that it is impolite and offensive to ask your professor to read essays in which you have not paid sufficient detail to mechanics (spelling, grammar) and format (conventional methods of presentation). Reading such essays takes longer, and the result is that your professor takes longer to return your classmates’ essays and has less time to perform other duties such as class preparation, administrative work, and research. In some cases, this may involve writing recommendations for students applying for jobs and graduate schools or applications for grants. If you don’t proofread adequately, you are not just affecting your grade, you are affecting people’s bank balances. Every essay should be approached as a professional activity. I read every essay as if I am assessing a candidate for a job interview.

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Last Update: 20 March, 2003