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Avoiding Plagiarism (and the Appearance of Plagiarism)


As more and more material is accessible electronically, the question of properly citing sources becomes crucial. Geography, date and time of access, edition, revisions, accuracy of transcription, quality of the source, and copyright are all factors you need to think about. For example, the print edition of a newspaper may not be equivalent to the online edition; the North American edition may not be the equivalent of the European edition; the story taken from a newswire may have been re-written locally and not be the equivalent of the original. To make matters more confusing, all of the variants may be available to you at the library through print resources, CD-ROM, full text retrieval databases, or the internet.

Web-based information often does not fall into the neat categories we are used to. Some web files may mimic print and display electronic versions of books or journals but others -- databases, discussion groups, individual web pages, ftp files, bulletin boards, online services and the like -- have no physical equivalent or physical characteristics. There is no commonly understood expression of physical size, for example, making it difficult to cite to a particular "page". There is no concept of " unpublished material" on the web; if it is on the web, by definition it is published. How do we sort out the actual item from the displayed expression of the item, which may depend on the software and hardware we are using and the preferences we have set on our system? Even determining the author (the person or entity responsible for the content of the page, as opposed to the designer of the web site) and the title (the one that was coded, as opposed to the one that is displayed) can be tricky.

Databases and files on some internet sites may, or may appear to, duplicate material found on other sites, in print, in online indexes, or other sources. Be careful. Cite your sources properly -- that is, make sure you understand which format, protocol, edition, or the like you used, and note the date you used the material, since it may disappear or act differently the next time you visit.

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Standards for Citing Sources

Several standards exist for citing electronic resources. Most follow a basic pattern:

Author's name. "Title of the document," Title of the Complete Work/File. [Electronic Access]. Protocol and address, including path. Date of document/date of last revision/date mounted. Date/Time of your visit.

While the time of visit may not be necessary, it is a handy element, in case the site changes or disappears prior to the paper being submitted and read.

For example, the citation for a book found on the internet might look like this:

Ruh, Joseph F. Jr., Editor (1996) The Internet and Business: A Lawyer's Guide to the Emerging Legal Issues. The Computer Law Association. Online. Available: 1 February 1998, 12:09 pm.

while the citation for a periodical article might look like this:

Shrode, Flora. "Environmental Resources on the World Wide Web." Electronic Green Journal. Issue 6 (December 1996): 85 pars. Online. Available: 1 February 1998, 12:25 pm.

In most cases, that will give anyone interested enough information to find the work you cited. However, if you found the item by using a searcher, you may have to know how to interpret the address and path that appears in the Location/Netsite/Address box in order to determine, accurately, the source of the complete work. Many serial publications (magazines and newspapers, for example) may have domestic, international, local, regional and/or country editions. The documents which result from the search may not indicate, within the document, from which edition they come. To cite such a document properly, you will have to find its source.

More difficult to cite are articles and other materials found in collective databases. Be aware that some URLs are generated on the fly -- that is, you will not be able to use them to return to the item you found. This is often true in web-based library catalogues and bibliographic databases. For example, if I searched electronic commerce in Ebsco's Academic Seach Elite Database, one of the items I might have retrieved was:

Shrivastava, Paul. "Management Classes as Online Learning Communities." Journal of Management Education, vol. 23, no. 6 (December 1999): 691, 12 pages.

The URL shown might be:

That URL will not produce the item above -- you would have to repeat the search steps to generate the article. Difficulties may occur when sites utilize various scripts and other, similar, search and retrieval methods. Look for a persistent URL or DOI (digital object identifier) provided by the the vendor or owner of the item.

Some online materials will provide you with a citation form for the material. For instance, the National Library of Medicine website which makes Citing Medicine: The NLM Style Guide for Authors, Editors, and Publishers available, offers:

Patrias K. Citing medicine: the NLM style guide for authors, editors, and publishers [Internet]. 2nd ed. Wendling DL, technical editor. Bethesda (MD): National Library of Medicine (US); 2007 - [updated 2011 Sep 15; cited Year Month Day]. Available from:

Some publishers include a sample or recommended citation for articles which appear in journals mounted on their websites. For instance, an article from the journal Nursing Inquiry offers:

How to Cite
Larsen, A.-C. (2012), Trappings of technology: casting palliative care nursing as legal relations. Nursing Inquiry, 19: 334344. doi: 10.1111/j.1440-1800.2011.00568.x

Students are cautioned that these citations may NOT be to the exact specifications required by an assignment and that they may have to adjust proffered citations accordingly. It is always best to consult the appropriate style guide.

Style Guides

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Created: 1997/02/05 Last updated: 2014/01/03
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