Category Archives: Research Papers

Does Plagiarism Exist?

Does plagiarism exist? Yes – and no. Serious students rarely plagiarize, and it’s not just that they’re too honest to pass someone else’s writing off as their own. Serious students have a perspective on research that goes beyond the warnings about cheating in most English classes.

Teachers generally warn students against copying someone else’s writing and pretending it’s yours (plagiarism). Of course that’s an important message for students. But professional researchers are far more concerned with what they’re putting into a research paper – or an article or book.

They know that researchers have to mention the big names in their field. It often happens (and I’ve experienced this myself) that there’s no convenient way to work in those big names. Tough. You have to do it anyway.

Suppose you were researching President Lyndon B. Johnson’s views on race issues. You would focus most of your attention on legislation and politics. At the same time, however, you would have to quote at least a couple of sentences from Robert A. Caro, Johnson’s most important biographer. You have to show that you know who Caro is and what he’s done, and a quotation or two is the best way to do it.

If you’re writing about American poet Emily Dickinson, you have to show that you’re familiar with Richard B. Sewall’s two-volume biography. Certainly there’s been significant research since it was published in 1975. But Sewall’s biography is still the definitive book about her life.

In 2006 I published a psychological article about Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion“The Talking Cure.” The article was inspired by a taped talk by a post-Jungian psychologist named Paul Kugler. Very few people know his name, even in the psychology field. I had to make sure my article quoted other names that are more familiar – Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

If you’re researching alcoholism, be sure to mention Alcoholics Anonymous. It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree with their Ten Step Program: you have to show that you’re familiar with it. Carl Sandburg was one of Abraham Lincoln’s most important biographers. David Fairchild wrote four books about the exotic fruits and vegetables that have gradually become staples in our American diet.

You get the idea (I hope!). A librarian can help you discover the big names that require at least a polite nod in your research. Both the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Encyclopedia Americana have bibliographies that can get you started. 

Two binders on a desk in an office


A Grumpy Morning

This morning got off to a grumpy start. I just came across an article called Take my word for it, the English language is facing destruction from a British publication called The Independent. Robert Fisk is the author.

If there’s anything that’s guaranteed to get my hackles up, it’s talk about the deterioration of the English language. Folks, English has already deteriorated. It happened after the Norman Conquest in 1066.

I studied Old English in graduate school, and I even read a substantial chunk of Beowulf in the original language. Old English was crammed with elaborate grammatical constructions, and I’m sorry to say that I’ve forgotten all of them. It is a very difficult language.

Old English had a zillion ways to make a word plural, for example. How many do we have? One – the “s” ending in girl, girls and house, houses – with some exceptions for foreign words and a few old forms that have lived on (child, children).

After the Norman Conquest, English lost most of its endings and formal grammar, and we never got them back. The Beowulf poet would weep if he saw what happened to his elegant language.

But modern English found ways to compensate for those losses, and we can still write sophisticated ideas and exciting stories. If English is still around in a thousand years, I guarantee it will look different from what we’re used to – but it will still be capable of subtlety and sophistication.

But it was something else that really upset me. Today I am going to bash – with apologies – English teachers. (Reminder: I was an English teacher myself for 40 years.)

Fisk’s article talks about a friend of his – a university lecturer – who was upset that his students copied research papers directly from Wikipedia. The lecturer didn’t mind the copying, mind you – what bothered him was that students didn’t even bother to change some of the words.

I am having a coronary. Yes, those students deserved to be marked down. But those plagiarized papers were the lecturer’s fault, not the students’ fault.

I (ahem!) never had a problem with plagiarism, and nobody ever handed me a paper copied from Wikipedia (or the World Book Encyclopedia, or the Britannica, or the Americana). And it’s not because I had any magical powers of detection.

Here’s how I did it:

First, I taught research papers. I didn’t just assign them and leave students to figure it out themselves (and be tempted to take the easy way out). (You can see some of the teaching resources I used at

Second, I required a thesis statement – a position to be developed in the paper. Encyclopedias don’t take positions. They assemble facts. Wikipedia is of no use when you require critical thinking.

Third, I provided a template. Ready-made papers for sale online obviously didn’t fit my template. Problem solved!

Most important, I monitored students’ progress. They shared their thesis statements in groups (and with me) long before the due date. They brought in their outlines. They discussed their research process. We had workshop days when students helped one another untie some of the knots they were encountering. Of course I made suggestions too.

Bottom line: if an instructor requires critical thinking – and really teaches the steps in writing a research paper – the plagiarism problem vanishes.

Research can even be fun. My remedial classes had to research the Lizzie Borden murder case and then critique a hokey TV documentary video that I showed in class. The papers that came in were wonderful – thoughtful, well organized, and well supported. None of them were bought online or copied from Wikipedia. (And students also were introduced to the difference between fake news and the real thing.)

OK – thanks for reading this today! Now that I’ve blown off some steam, I’m feeling much better. Whew.

critical thinking word cloud on a digital tablet with a cup of coffee


First Aid for Students Doing Research Papers

It’s crunch time! This month many students are writing research papers. If you know a student who could use some help, consider sharing these tips for student researchers. You can find more resources at

Ten Tips for Successful Research Papers

  1. Before you begin, review the directions from your instructor.
  2. Start working on your research paper well before the due date.
  3. Ask a librarian for research suggestions (and write them down!).
  4. Plan your research paper carefully.
  5. Select a keyword that’s central to the point you’re making.
  6. Build your research paper around the keyword you selected.
  7. Take advantage of your instructor’s email, office phone, or office hours when you need help.
  8. Use your computer’s spellchecker and grammar checker.
  9. Use the free tutoring and other services offered by your school or college.
  10. Before submitting your research paper, ask a friend or family member to read it and give you feedback.

A+ grade ok



Help for Ambitious Writers Part 2: Plagiarism

Some years ago a friend excitedly told me that a self-publishing company was helping her write a book. Among the services she paid for were copyediting, formatting, and publicity.

Although a team of experts was hard at work getting her manuscript ready, she gratefully accepted my offer to take a look at it. When I read it, I was shocked at the issues the copyeditor had overlooked. More seriously, my friend unknowingly was guilty of a copyright violation. No one on the team was concerned that she hadn’t sought permission to copy a large chunk of a piece published by another writer. She thought crediting the author was sufficient.

The story had a happy ending: My friend obtained permission, didn’t go to jail, and ended up with a successful book.

Her experience came back to me last week in a newspaper story about a school district superintendent who’s been accused of plagiarism.

In 2014, Alachua County Superintendent Owen A. Roberts self-published a book called A Framework for Improving School Systems in the 21st Century. He very properly listed his sources at the end.

But there are no attributions in the actual text of his book. Readers don’t know who created the charts and collected the data. There are no quotation marks around the paragraphs copied from other writers.

Simply put, Roberts is guilty of plagiarism – and he may also have violated copyright law. His self-publisher, Xlibris, didn’t talk to him about these issues.

Does it make any difference? Hell, it makes a lot of difference.

The legal problem should be obvious. Copyright violations can lead to lawsuits, sizable fines, and jail time.

But there are other difficulties. Publishing history is full of stories of mistaken facts and falsified research. (For example, I’ve read almost every book about the infamous Lizzie Borden murder trial, and the misinformation I’ve found is astounding.) For that reason, sophisticated readers want to know who did the research and who vetted the data. Sometimes they want to check the sources themselves. They may also want to know where a chart or quotation came from so that they can use it in their own work. And they may simply want to read another article or book about a topic that interests them. 

Roberts, who holds a doctorate in educational research and evaluation from the University of Miami, is bewildered by the uproar. “I didn’t know there were academic norms at all,” he said.

He has been the Alachua County schools superintendent since July 2014. The district has a clearly stated plagiarism policy:

“All materials taken from a source that duplicates or approximates the wording used on that source must be placed in quotes or otherwise set aside as quoted material,” the document states. “Direct reference must be made to the source within the text or through the use of footnotes or endnotes. Failure to fulfill this requirement is plagiarism.”

What does this mean to your own writing projects? You need to educate yourself about copyright, fair use, and plagiarism. There’s plenty of information online, and librarians can help. If you have a complicated question about information you want to copy, you should consider hiring an attorney.

Yes, you can copy snippets of another person’s work without permission (it’s called “fair use”). But anything larger than a “snippet” requires written permission and – in many cases – payment. I’ve paid hundreds of dollars to use comic strips, paragraphs, and essays in my published work.

I have a marvelous permissions story to tell you about Sidney Poitier (a superb actor and a great and generous man). It will be the subject of my next post.



Thank You, Google Books!

Today’s topic is Google Books – an online service that’s revolutionizing research.

In a post last week, I complained that Carole King used the annoying word “respective” seven times in her otherwise-marvelous book A Natural Woman. One of my friends read that post and was gracious enough to say that she enjoyed it – but she also had a question: How did I come up with the number “seven”? I got the feeling that said friend was expecting me to confess that I’d guessed at the number.

But I didn’t guess, and I didn’t count the respectives as I was reading. I did find seven respectives in King’s book – quickly – with the help of Google Books.

My generation is the only group that can really appreciate Google Books. We’re making the transition from old-style research to the Digital Age, and we can still remember how tedious research used to be.

Here’s what’s going on: Google has made a commitment to scan every published book in the world – all 130 million of them. So far 25 million books have been scanned. Plans are to complete the scanning  by the end of the 2000s. (You can read more about the project at this link.)

Google is not alone in this. Various organizations and scholars are doing similar projects that are more narrowly focused. So, for example, my friend Gustavo A. Rodríguez Martín is busy creating a database from books by and about George Bernard Shaw.

This just in: Gustavo just said readers of this blog might want to visit There are millions of digitized books and other resources, all free! (Thanks, Gustavo!)

Back to Carole King. I went to Google Books and searched for her book  A Natural Woman. A search box popped up. I typed in respective, and every sentence using that word appeared on my computer screen – seven of them. (A caveat: For copyright reasons, Google Books will sometimes provide only three instances of a search term per book. I got lucky with respective.)

I first stumbled on this amazing search feature when I was putting the finishing touches on an essay about Shaw and education for a friend’s book. To my horror, I discovered that I’d omitted the source for an important quotation. In the Bad Old Days, that would have meant an afternoon stumbling around the library looking for the quotation.

But this is the digital age. With trembling hands (I was new to Google Books), I typed the quotation into Google – and seconds later the name of the book came up. It was one of the 25 million that have already been digitized. Fist pump! Google even provided the page number (something it’s started doing far less often, again for copyright reasons -sigh).

Another example: The copyright limitations on many of Shaw’s plays have expired, and that means I can copy and paste lengthy quotations into articles I’m writing – there’s no need to prop open a book and type them myself.

One more example: A few months ago I created a series of instructional videos about writing a research paper (click here to see them – they’re free). It didn’t take long for me to realize that I needed an actual research paper to use as an example, so I wrote one about ragtime.

I have a nice library about ragtime right here in my living room – it’s my favorite music – but there are gaps. For example, I needed information about a historic ragtime performance at the Paris Exposition in 1900. In the Bad Old Days, I’d have spent an hour driving to a university with a good library.

But now we have Google books! I typed “ragtime” and “Paris Exposition” into Google, and pages from books about ragtime with exactly the information I needed popped onto my screen.

Young scholars don’t know how lucky they are. (I know, I know – I’m sounding like those geezers who love to tell you how they walked through two feet of snow to get to school! I can’t help it.)

  • I remember card catalogs and having to wait, shifting my weight from one foot to another, because somebody was already using the drawer with the cards I needed.
  • I remember requesting a book or magazine, waiting and waiting for it to be delivered – and then discovering that the pages I needed had been ripped out.
  • I remember going through the indexes of maybe 20 books hoping that one of them had the information I needed.
  • I remember hearing my professors reminisce about patiently go through hundreds of old books, page by page, looking for a particular word to tabulate how it was used. (I did that myself in graduate school with seventeenth-century British fiction.)

You young researchers don’t know how lucky you are!

Google Books Wikipedia ok


Procrastination in Writing

Writer’s block. That blank sheet of paper staring you in the face. It’s a student’s worst nightmare: THE RESEARCH PAPER.

This week I’ve been reliving all my procrastination behaviors from my student days: I’ve been putting off a research paper of sorts – a professional writing job that involved collecting, organizing, and commenting on some sources related to Bernard Shaw and feminism.

This is what it’s felt like: Carrying a cement block on my back. Living under a gray cloud. Dealing with a gloomy mood, a frozen brain, and fears that I’ll never get it done, it will be awful, and I’ll have nothing to say.

You’d think that by now – I’ve published six books, along with numerous articles in magazines, journals, and other media – it would get a little easier. Nope.

Worst of all is the guilt. I can’t enjoy anything because the dreaded task is hanging over my head.

Luckily there are strategies for getting out from under. Here’s what worked for me this week:

1.  Jump-starting my brain.

The unconscious mind will do a lot of the organizing and writing without our even knowing it if (and this is a big IF) we give it something to work with. Every day I’ve been reading and taking notes. Result: An unbelievably messy computer document (bad) that’s also an encouraging start to my writing project (good).

2.  Doing a little every day.

Small is Beautiful is the title of a collection of essays by E. F. Schumacher – and a great principle to live by, especially when a dreaded project is looming. If you commit to doing something to move the project forward every day (and, of course, follow through with your resolution), after a while it gets to be a habit, and the momentum is there when you need it.

3.  Doing it badly.

This is counterintuitive advice, but it works. Honest. Commit yourself to producing something awful. What always happens is that I discover a) The task isn’t so terrible after all, once I get myself going and b) I can improve it to make it something I’m proud of.

And that’s exactly what seems to be happening, to my immense relief. Try these tips for overcoming procrastination in writing.  They really work!


Research Papers

In the past couple of weeks I’ve been editing research papers. Not a happy experience. I’m realizing I need to add some research-paper resources to this website. I’ve done enough research myself to do that there are many pitfalls to watch for, and an experienced guide can be a big help.

But I also know that there are some obvious mistakes that nobody should be making. Here are some tips for student researchers:

1.  Find out what documentation system you should be using. If you’re a high school or college student, your institution has adopted a handbook that lays out the approved system. Buy the handbook (or camp out in the library, which surely owns a copy) and follow it slavishly.

2.  In general, English and humanities courses require MLA. Science courses use APA.

3.  End every Works Cited entry with a period. I know: Picky, picky, picky. But it’s the first thing many instructors (including me) look for.

4.  There are online aids for documentation. You can go to my college (, click on the How to Cite link, and scroll down for the Citation Machine.

5.  Check and double-check your work. The Citation Machine occasionally inserts extra periods, for example.

6.  Use capital letters. I shouldn’t even have to say this, but it’s a big problem with many papers.

7.  Your introductory paragraph should include the following: A catchy opening (an interesting quotation or a story), background about your topic, a statement by an expert about the importance of your topic, and your thesis statement. If there’s a lot of background, your introduction can be two paragraphs long.

8.  No matter what – even if you’re writing a book – get the thesis on the first page.

9.  Begin every paragraph with a topic sentence that a) relates to your thesis and b) predicts what the paragraph will be about. Stick to that topic through the whole paragraph.

10.  Wrap up your paper in the last paragraph. Don’t introduce anything new.

11.  Find out the big names in your field, and find a way to include them in your paper. Librarians can help you with this. You can also find top experts’ names in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Just find the entry about your topic and go to the end. The bibliography there will list the best books. If it’s a strictly American topic (Abraham Lincoln, Lizzie Borden), use the Encyclopedia Americana.

12.  Be strong and emphatic. Recently I read two research papers that started out with “not” statements, explaining what something or somebody wasn’t. Bad idea.

13.  Don’t stray from your topic. I read a paper about Shaw this week that included several paragraphs that didn’t mention Shaw or his writings at all. Nope.

14.  Librarians are research experts. You’d be surprised how often I go to librarians for help with my research projects. If I’m a professional writer, and I rely on librarians for help, shouldn’t you be doing the same?

15.  Ask a friend or family member to read your paper before you submit it.

 Today’s Quiz ANSWER

The sentence is correct, but it could be better.

Here’s the original (correct) sentence: I served coffee after my husband cleared the dinner dishes.

It would be better to insert “had” to show that clearing the dinner dishes happened before I served coffee. Here’s the improved sentence:

I served coffee after my husband had cleared the dinner dishes. IMPROVED