Many history students tangle their desire for originality and their need to avoid plagiarism into a single mess. The result is students tirelessly going through the hassle of taking the work of others and rewording in a way to make it their “own.” In his “A Heartbreaking Problem of Staggering Proportions,” Richard Wightman Fox wants everyone to stop that madness. He wonders “why we force ourselves to erase the traces of other authors in our texts.” Instead, just give other historians the credit.
Consider that “since we historians are nonfiction writers who create texts, not paintings, photographs, or songs, we have the opportunity to do something novelists, artists, and musicians cannot ordinarily do. We can put the names of our colleagues or predecessors into our texts at no cost to either the originality or the dramatic force of our creations” (1344). That will spare us “from the time-consuming labor of tinkering with another author’s prose in order to make it legally, commercially, or ethically their own” (1345). The thought should be quite freeing to history students. Unfortunately, too many students “finish college thinking that a work of history is well written when its author’s ‘opinions’ have been suppressed.” Stop it. Just give other historians credit when credit is due. This includes thoughts, theories, and ideas, not just phrases and the order of words. Originality is not rewording someone else’s work to the point it is impossible for others to recognize it; originality is generating your thesis and proving it out, even with the aid of others who came before you. To help students realize this, Fox puts the following on all of his syllabi and he encourages others to use it as well.
Don’t claim the ideas or words of someone else as your own. Do use the ideas and words of others to help develop your own. Do have friends read and comment on drafts of your papers. Always give explicit credit when you use anyone’s exact thoughts or language, whether in paraphrasing or quoting them. Give an acknowledgment to someone who’s helped you overall. Intellectual work is about developing and sharing your ideas, and it’s about taking note of and praising other people who have shared good ones with you.
Every history student should read Fox’s words and take them to heart.
By Scott Manning
Online Learning Tips, Student Contributor
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