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Academic Integrity

Honor Code of The University of Texas at Austin

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College of Liberal Arts

Avoiding plagiarism in history courses

Plagiarism is one of the most prevalent and serious forms of scholastic dishonesty occurring at this university. When detected, plagiarism is likely to leave permanent effects upon a student's academic record and career prospects. Faculty members and Student Judicial Services assess academic penalties for this transgression ranging from failure in the course to expulsion from the University. This information is being provided to help you understand what plagiarism is—and to help you avoid committing it.

The University's Institutional Rules (Section 11-802(d)) define plagiarism as including, "but not limited to, the appropriation of, buying, receiving as a gift, or obtaining by any other means material that is attributable in whole or in part to another source . . . and presenting that material as one's own academic work offered for credit." This definition is legalistic and wordy, but in courses at this university it comes down to this: plagiarism is handing in someone else's work and taking credit for it as if it were your own.

When a student is charged with plagiarism, it is irrelevant to the University whether the transgression was intentional or inadvertent. The student who commits plagiarism through carelessness is just as accountable as the student who sets out to deceive.

Opportunities for plagiarism in history courses often arise from a paradox that is embedded in our discipline: we require that your work be your own, but historical scholarship is inherently communal and cumulative. Historians are expected to engage and build upon the work of their colleagues and predecessors—and they are expected to be "original" at the same time.

Plagiarism in history courses can take many forms. Copying another person's published or unpublished writing word-for-word without quotation marks and without attribution is the most obvious and blatant instance. Plagiarism also includes paraphrasing another writer's ideas too closely or without adequate attribution. (See examples below.) There is also an infraction known as "self-plagiarism": it is an offense against University rules to turn in the same work for credit more than once unless all involved instructors consent in advance.

The development of Internet search engines, the process of downloading, and the ease of cutting and pasting text on a computer as you write successive drafts have made plagiarism—whether intentional or inadvertent—much easier to commit. (Of course these same search engines have also made plagiarism much easier for an instructor to detect.) The process of copying material from one or more websites, rearranging it to suit your purposes, and pasting this concoction into your drafts does not make it "your" work. However artfully done, it is simply an innovative form of plagiarism.

College of Liberal Arts

The word "truth" from the inscription on the Main Building "Ye shall know the truth, the truth shall make you free"; Photo: Marsha Miller

Basic tips to avoid committing plagiarism

  • Historians use a variety of citation formats, including footnotes, endnotes, and indicating their source directly in their text within parentheses. Within those formats, they use a variety of styles. Ask your instructor for guidance on a uniform system of citations—and follow that advice.
  • Take notes carefully. Whenever you copy a direct quotation, protect yourself by putting quotation marks around it. Attach a full, accurate citation to any borrowed passage, whether quoted or paraphrased, and keep it attached as you write.
  • Although borrowed ideas must be fully acknowledged in a citation, you do not need to provide a citation for information that your reader can reasonably be expected to know. When in doubt, include a citation.
  • You can avoid plagiarism by learning how to paraphrase. It is much easier to avoid plagiarism that involves verbatim copying or handing in the same paper twice than it is to avoid plagiarism that involves paraphrase, probably the trickiest area of all. Certainly it is the area where most instances of plagiarism occur.
    A paraphrase is borrowed text digested and rewritten in one's own words for one's own purposes. Because the thought is expressed in your own words, you do not encase it in quotation marks. But because the thought is borrowed, its source must be acknowledged. Students often run into trouble on both counts: they paraphrase without attribution, and they stay too close to the wording and structure of the borrowed text. Simply moving your source's words around and inserting a few of your own is not acceptable; it is still plagiarism.
    To help you master the difference between acceptable and unacceptable paraphrase, here is a statement written by a historian, followed by three examples of how a student might use it. Only the third example is not an instance of plagiarism.

"Revising interpretations of the past is intrinsic to the study of history. But no part of the American experience has, in the last twenty-five years, seen a broadly accepted point of view so completely overturned as Reconstruction—the violent, dramatic, and still controversial era that followed the Civil War. Since the early 1960s, a profound alteration of the place of blacks within American society, newly uncovered evidence, and changing definitions of history itself have combined to transform our understanding of race relations, politics, and economic change during Reconstruction."1
1Eric Foner. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), p. xix.

Revisionism is inherent in historical scholarship, but in the last generation no phase of American history has undergone a more drastic transformation in the way it is understood by historians than Reconstruction, the period of political, social, and economic upheaval after the Civil War. This revised interpretation is the result of new evidence, new modes of historical scholarship, and the altered status of African-Americans in the United States in the last half-century.
This is plagiarism because the content and structure of the passage are obviously taken from Foner's passage without citation.

According to Eric Foner, changing interpretations of the past are intrinsic in the writing of history. But he believes that no period in American history has witnessed a widely accepted understanding so drastically overturned in the last quarter century as Reconstruction—the tumultuous and bloody period following the Civil War. Over the last forty years, a profound change in the place of blacks in our society, newly discovered evidence, and new understandings of history itself have converged to alter our understanding of race relations and the political and economic changes that occurred during Reconstruction.1
1Eric Foner. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), p. xix.
This example is also plagiarism but of a somewhat different sort. Although it cites its source, it still is unacceptable because it, too, tracks the structure and language of Foner's writing too closely.    

Eric Foner begins his magisterial book with the point—by now something of a commonplace—that the upheaval in Reconstruction historiography in the late twentieth century was in part a result of the civil rights movement.1
1Eric Foner. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), p. xix.
This paraphrase is acceptable because, in its own "digested" words and with its own viewpoint and purpose, it summarizes Foner's point and it supplies a full citation.