Recognizing When and How to Paraphrase a Research Source

Part One:

Many students are under the false impression that historical texts can be freely used without citation, because they believe that "history" is about events in the public domain rather than the "interpretation" of those events, which would be a type of intellectual property.  However, you must always properly cite all quotations, paraphrases, opinions, scholarly information, and research statistics.

Read the following example from an article in the New York Times and consider what historian James MacKay did wrong in his use of the prior writing and research of Samuel Eliot Morison (whose work on Columbus you read a few weeks ago).

September 21, 1999

Plagiarism Accusations Halt Distribution of John Paul Jones Biography

Although four of his recent biographies have been attacked as plagiarisms and one of them was recalled and pulped, still James Mackay, a prolific Scottish author of more than 100 books, was on the American publishing list for fall.  His new work, "I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight: A Life of John Paul Jones," the first full-length biography of the Scottish-born American naval hero in 40 years, was due for release next month by Atlantic Monthly Press of Grove/Atlantic Inc.  But the same sorts of accusations that have recently dogged Mackay have now caused his publisher, after questions from The New York Times, to abruptly halt the book for a check on similarities to the last major Jones biography, published in 1959 by the eminent American historian Samuel Eliot Morison, who died at 88 in 1976.  "I am holding back distribution and getting an independent evaluation," said Morgan Entrekin, president and publisher of Grove/Atlantic.

Reached at home in Glasgow, Mackay (pronounced Muhk-EYE), 63, who has written 160 books by his own count, denied copying the Morison book, "John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography."  "Obviously I read it like I read everything else that had ever been written on the subject, but this is my own work," he said.  Asked how so many passages in the two biographies could be so remarkably similar, he said, "There are only a certain number of words in the English language."

The action, putting in limbo 7,500 freshly printed copies of the $28 book, comes just a year after another publishing house recalled and destroyed thousands of copies of one of Mackay's books over issues of copyright infringement.  Just how a prominent publisher could have proceeded with Mackay after four of his other books had been questioned has led to disbelief among those who know of his history.  Entrekin acknowledged that until last week he had never talked to the author he was publishing or inquired into his checkered past. Entrekin added that Mackay's Scottish publisher, Mainstream Publishing Co., which had released the Jones book in 1998, had "mentioned" the earlier plagiarism allegations "but they never told me the entire story." However, Bill Campbell, one of Mainstream's two managing directors, said that "Atlantic Monthly knew about the allegations."

The similarities in the Jones books were first identified by W. Jeffrey Bolster, who was assigned by The New York Times Book Review to review the new work from bound galley proofs. A subsequent comparison of the Morison and the Mackay texts by The Times found dozens of instances of closely matching passages.

Morison wrote of Jones: "During his career, he visited some of the most beautiful parts of the world -- Cape Breton, the Windward Islands, Jamaica, Galicia, Brittany, the Hebrides, the Baltic and the Black Sea; yet not once in his voluminous correspondence does he indicate any appreciation of them; and in only one letter, about the great gale of October 1780, does he mention the majesty of the sea."

Mackay wrote: "In the course of his career he visited some of the most beautiful parts of the world -- the Caribbean islands, Nova Scotia, Galicia, the Baltic and the Black Sea as well as the eastern seaboard of America and the coasts of Britain -- yet nowhere in his vast correspondence does he betray any appreciation of them. In only one letter, written in October 1780 in the aftermath of a great storm, does he allude to the majesty of the sea."

Mackay called any similarities "quite unintentional" and added, "If I've done that, I assure you that it's certainly not something that I would do deliberately." He does cite Morison in several places in the book.

In the interview, Mackay also rejected charges, leveled by another author and by scholars and reported in a series of articles starting last year in Scotland's leading newspaper, The Scotsman, that he had plagiarized material for four of his other books since 1995. He wrote biographies of Alexander Graham Bell, Mary Queen of Scots, Andrew Carnegie and the 13th-century Scottish patriot Sir William Wallace, portrayed in "Braveheart," an unrelated film starring Mel Gibson.  His biography of Bell, published in the United States by John Wiley & Sons in 1997, was withdrawn by Wiley last year and copies were destroyed at Mackay's expense, about $40,000. The action came after a retired Boston University professor emeritus, Robert Bruce, documented that the book had been copied wholesale from his 1973 Bell biography, "Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude," published by Little, Brown.

After talking to Mackay in Glasgow and to his Edinburgh publisher, Entrekin said that copies of "I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight," which came off the presses just last week, would not be shipped until further evaluation by a history specialist.  Entrekin said that he had known about the Morison book, which was also published by Atlantic Monthly Press, then an imprint of Little, Brown, and had had an editor in his office look through it, but that no systematic comparison had been made and no alarms sounded.

Mackay is one of Scotland's busiest authors, writing many books on stamps and coins. He is a leading biographer of Robert Burns and in 1994 received a coveted Scottish literary prize, the Saltire Award.

Bolster, the reviewer who had been assigned by The Times Book Review, is an associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. He said he was startled to find Morison's words, with insignificant changes, echoing in the Mackay book.  In one passage, Morison gave this description of Jones: "His characteristic features were a sharp, wedge-shaped nose, high cheekbones and a strong, cleft chin. His expression showed pride, eagerness and intellectual alertness."  Mackay wrote: "His outstanding features were a sharp, wedge-shaped nose, high cheekbones and a strong, cleft chin. His expression showed pride, eagerness, sagacity and intellectual alertness."

Mackay called questions about the authenticity of his book "quite outrageous" and said that with perhaps 40 books written about Jones, "there are plenty of other books where the same observations are made."
Every historical writer "treads in the footsteps of people who go before them," he said. "We make progress on the shoulders of giants. That is my answer to that."  Mackay acknowledged that his career had been damaged. "It shows what happens once these journalists get their hooks into you," he said.  Was he continuing to write books? "Yes I am indeed," he said.

1.  Using the two sets of parallel passages quoted in the article, explain the different types of possible plagiarism involved in MacKay's use of Morison's work.

2.  Could it have still been considered plagiarism if MacKay had not lifted Morison's exact words? Why?

3.  Using the chart below decide if you must always cite the original source, usually cite the original source, or sometimes cite the original source at your own discretion.

Type of Historical Data Always Usually Sometimes
The names of Presidents of the United States.
The names of those present at a 
little-known meeting with important 
historical consequences.
The date of a historical event that is 
disputed by several historians
The date of a historical event 
that was recently discovered 
by a famous historian.
The date of a well-known 
battle in the Revolutionary War.
The causes of the destruction 
of the Taino Indians (widely available 
in several history books).
The reasons Cortes triumphed 
in military engagements (derived from 
your study of primary sources)
A paraphrase of the text of a historical 
speech taken from a newspaper of the time
A description of a historical speech 
taken from a newspaper of the time
A paraphrase of a letter 
in a university archive


Part Two:

The second part of this exercise will help you to distinguish between statements of general knowledge that do not need documentation and statements of source-based knowledge that do need documentation. Each of the pairs below includes a general knowledge statement and a statement paraphrase from an outside source, in this case, from UCI's 1998-99 General Catalogue. In each pair below, identify by letter the statement that is paraphrased from this source and therefore in need of documentation. You should not need to consult this source in order to decide which statement in each pair is so specifically source-based that it needs to be documented as a borrowing. For each, identify the principle that determines your choice, that is, answer the question of why one needs documentation and the other does not.  Circle your choices on the printed worksheet.
  1. a) UCI is a public research institution.

  2. b) UCI's policies are based on the US and California Constitutions and on the University of California Charter.
  3. a) In 1995, two UCI faculty won Nobel prizes.

  4. b) UCI is a leader among public research universities because of its distinguished professors, many of whom are members of select professional associations and have won distinguished international prizes for their scholarship.
  5. a) UCI is the youngest of the UC campuses.

  6. b) UCI opened in 1965.
  7. a) A faculty member must contact a student suspected of cheating within 15 days of becoming aware of this possiblity.

  8. b) Faculty members are responsible for investigating any cheating that they suspect.
  9. a) UCI publishes its policy on academic honesty.

  10. b) UCI's handbook, Policies Applying to Campus Activities, Organizations, and Students, is available in the offices of the Dean of Students and the Ombudsman.
  11. a) Plagiarism is cheating.

  12. b) Plagiarism involves the misrepresentation of passing off someone else's work as one's own without identifying this borrowing.
  13. a) The Ombudsman's role is to help resolve conflict.

  14. b) The Ombudsman can be consulted by a student, a faculty member, or a dean.
  15. a) Plagiarism and other forms of cheating undermine the academic functions of teaching, and of scholarly and scientific research for which the university stands, and are not acceptable.

  16. b) UCI policy on academic honesty is designed to discourage and punish cheating.
  17. a) UCI has a policy on academic honesty.

  18. b) UCI's policy on Academic Honesty was approved on June 2, 1988.
  19. a) People should follow the UCI policies about academic honesty.

  20. b) No one is forced to attend or work at UCI, so their choice to be at UCI necessarily includes their choice to follow UCI's Principles of Community and the policies about academic honesty that derive from these principles and that safeguard UCI's educational mission.

Part Three:

The third part of this exercise will help you to learn how to paraphrase responsibly and accurately. For each of the following sets, examine the original passage and then indicate whether each numbered paraphrase

Set 1

original source: "UCI's legacy for an increasingly multicultural academic community and for a learning climate free from expressions of bigotry is drawn from the United States and California Constitutions, and from the charter of the University of California which protects diversity and reaffirms our commitment to the protection of lawful free speech" (UCI 1998-88 General Catalogue).
  1. According to the UCI 1998-88 General Catalogue, UCI receives funding from a multiracial and multiethnic community of supporters in California and the USA which wants it to uphold civil rights.
  2. UCI's "increasingly multicultural academic community" upholds the protection of bigotry in the interests of promoting the freedom of expression necessary for effective higher education (UCI 1998-88 General Catalogue).
  3. UCI's educational policy on First Amendment freedoms is aligned with federal and state consitutional policies, and with UC's charter (UCI 1998-88 General Catalogue).

Set 2

original source: "The University is an institution of learning, research, and scholarship predicated on the existence of an environment of honesty and integrity. As members of the academic community, faculty, students, and administrative officials share responsibility for maintaining this environment. It is essential that all members of the academic community subscribe to the ideal of academic honesty and integrity and accept individual responsibility for their work" (UCI 1998-88 General Catalogue).
  1. The university's work is dependent on the "academic honesty and integrity" of each individual member in it (UCI 1998-88 General Catalogue).
  2. All students, teachers, and administrators must work together to make the university an excellent educational establishment (UCI 1998-88 General Catalogue).
  3. The research, teaching, and other individual scholarly work at the university is the basis of its excellence, and all individuals share in this community (UCI 1998-88 General Catalogue).

Set 3

original source: "Academic dishonesty is unacceptable and will not be tolerated the University of California, Irvine. Cheating, forgery, dishonest conduct, plagiarism, and collusion in dishonest activities erode the University's educational, research, and social roles. They devalue the learning experience and its legitimacy not only for the perpetrators but for the entire community" (UCI 1998-88 General Catalogue).
  1. UCI will not tolerate dishonest academic behavior, which is unacceptable. UCI's learning, research, and personal functions are eroded when people cheat, forge, and plagiarize (UCI 1998-88 General Catalogue).
  2. Academic dishonesty undermines the very essence of an educational institution and hurts everyone associated with the university. UCI is committed to eliminating academic dishonesty (UCI 1998-88 General Catalogue).
  3. The perpetrators of academic dishonesty "devalue the learning experience and its legitimacy" (UCI 1998-88 General Catalogue).

Set 4

original source: "Many, perhaps most, incidents of academic dishonesty involve accusations which are based on clear evidence and which are not contested by the accused student. In such cases, if the infraction is relatively minor and there is no indication that the accused student has previously been involved in such incidents, it is most appropriate that the matter be resolved between the student and the faculty member" (UCI 1998-88 General Catalogue).
  1. Most academic dishonesty is minor and accusations can be straightened out easily between the student and instructor (UCI 1998-88 General Catalogue).
  2. Quizzes, exams, and other contests which are based on multiple choice or yes-no answers ("clear evidence") are the usual sources of academic dishonesty (UCI 1998-88 General Catalogue).
  3. If suspected academic dishonesty is minor, obvious, and not a repeat incident, the matter can usually be cleared up between the student and instructor concerned (UCI 1998-88 General Catalogue).

Set 5

original source: "When this [academic dishonesty] occurs, it is nevertheless important that a written report of the incident be filed to ensure that penalties assessed are commensurate with the offense and that repeated infractions be detected and dealt with appropriately. Most serious incidents and repeat offenses which call for stronger disciplinary action may result in campuswide sanctions, in addition to the actions imposed by a faculty member" (UCI 1998-88 General Catalogue).
  1. All incidents of academic dishonesty are reported in writing and may, if appropriately serious, be subject to discipline by the university as well as by the course instructor (UCI 1998-88 General Catalogue).
  2. When cheating happens it is nonetheless vital that a communique of the event be reported to guarantee that the assessment of retribution is relative to the crime and that subsequent offenses are found and managed suitably.(UCI 1998-88 General Catalogue).
  3. Campuswide sanctions against "most serious incidents and repeat offenses" of academic dishonesty are reported in writing (UCI 1998-88 General Catalogue

Set 6

original source: "The University's nondiscrimination policy, in compliance with applicable federal and state law, covers treatment in University programs and activities as well as admission and employment. UCI expects all those affiliated with it to adhere to the letter and the spirit of University nondiscrimination policies and related federal and state laws."
  1. UCI's nondiscrimination policy, complying with relevant federal and state laws, covers activities and treatment in University programs in addition to employment and admission. UCI expects everyone affiliated with it to conform to the spirit and the letter of University nondiscrimination policies and associated state and federal laws (UCI 1998- 88 General Catalogue).
  2. UCI expects everyone admitted as a student, working at UCI, or receiving care in its medical facilities to comply with its nondiscimination policy (UCI 1998-88 General Catalogue).
  3. The UCI campus community complies actively with related federal and state laws against discrimination (UCI 1998-88 General Catalogue).
Source: UCI 1998-99 General Catalogue

Copyright © 1999 by Ellen Strenski and Elizabeth Losh

All rights reserved
Last updated: 13 October 1999