Unintentional Citing in Academic Research: What It Is and How to Avoid It

In April 2014, Associate Dean Vanessa Ryan of the prestigious Brown University Graduate School was investigated for plagiarism after one of her readers found that her book had co-opted the ideas of others and passed them off as her own.

To defend herself, Ryan issued a statement explaining that:

“In August 2013, I learned that my book contains inadvertent errors of attribution, which resulted from mistakes I made in documenting my research as I worked on the project over many years. I take full responsibility for these mistakes. While, as a result of these mistakes, my book uses words from other scholars’ writings without attribution, the substance of the ideas in the book is my own.”

In the end, Brown University did not charge her with research misconduct. Some academics claimed that her actions were understandable, since unintentional citing is incredibly common in academia. Others, however, questioned the ruling, saying that plagiarism remains plagiarism, whether it’s done intentionally or unintentionally.

So, what exactly was Vanessa Ryan accused of? And what can you learn from her story about how to avoid plagiarism yourself?

What Does Unintentional Citing Mean?

Unintentional citing is one of the types of plagiarism that occurs when a researcher misuses their sources. As its name suggests, it is the accidental appropriation of someone else’s work caused by a lack of understanding of the proper citation or documentation methods. This may also involve improper paraphrasing and not knowing the statute of limitations regarding the attribution of another person’s ideas.

So, while the misuse of sources is still considered plagiarism, it’s not always done with bad intentions. Sometimes, it’s just an honest mistake – but that doesn’t mean you still can’t get into serious trouble for unintentional citing.

Is Unintentional Citing Wrong?

While unintentional plagiarism is not always the result of a researcher wanting to pass off someone else’s work as their own, academia still considers it plagiarism and maintains that it violates the field’s ethical standards.

Thus, researchers proven to have unintentionally plagiarised their work will still face the consequences, and may even have their credibility questioned.

For example, Associate Dean Vanessa Ryan became the subject of a three-person investigative panel and had to notify her book’s publisher that she had accidentally misused her sources. While cleared of research misconduct, her apology and how Brown University handled her case remain controversial among academics to this day.

What Does Unintentional Citing Look Like?

To better understand how unintentional plagiarism works, let us look at the evidence against Associate Dean Ryan. From this example, we can see that unintentional citing includes the following:

  • The failure to cite a source not considered general or common knowledge
  • The failure to blockquote a source’s exact words, even if cited
  • The failure to paraphrase a source’s ideas into your own words, even if cited
  • The failure to summarise the source in your own words, even if cited
  • The failure to remain loyal to the source’s original tone, intentions, or words

An investigative troika may have absolved associate Dean Ryan; however, universities, colleges, and other academic institutions still take unconventional citing very seriously. Thus, researchers and students should go above and beyond to avoid it, no matter what.

How to Avoid Plagiarism

So, how can you avoid unintentional plagiarism? Well, here are a few things that you can do to make sure you aren’t accidentally using ideas in your work without proper attribution:

Take detailed notes

In Associate Dean Vanessa Ryan’s case of unintentional plagiarism, she admitted that one of her mistakes was failing to document her research adequately. Thus, taking highly detailed notes throughout the entire research process will help avoid accidentally misusing sources.

For example, if you want to use a quote in your final output, then not only should you take note of who said it, but you should also enclose it in quotation marks. As simple as these methods seem, they help you to steer clear of unintentional plagiarism.

Learn how to paraphrase

Proper paraphrasing means more than just replacing certain words with their synonyms. Instead, it involves using your own words and thought process to explain another person’s idea. It is still important to cite a paraphrased text, so always remember to include information about your source.

Use proper citations

Whenever you use an idea, fact, figure, or quote from another person’s work, then cite it properly using the format that your chosen style requires. Additionally, you should also know the conventions regarding the usage of footnotes, endnotes, bibliographies, and works-cited lists. Professors and research institutions sometimes have their own preferences, so make sure to familiarise yourself with what they want.

Double-check your sources

When conducting a research project, do not forget to pay attention to the various sources that you used. Before submitting your final paper, carry out either source checking or a reference check to ensure that all external authors were credited correctly.

Avoid Unintentional Citations with Flowcite

Even with all these methods, you might still worry about committing unintentional plagiarism, especially if you’re submitting your work to peer-reviewed journals. If you remain unsure about how to avoid plagiarism, even accidental plagiarism, then you can use research-specific tools, like Flowcite, to ensure you never fall foul of unintentional citing yourself.

Flowcite is an online platform that boasts integrated proofreading services and a powerful plagiarism checker. It features an all-in-one citation manager that provides researchers with a seamless and consistent way to reference their sources, which further minimises the risk of plagiarism. Not only does this tool generate citations quickly, accurately, and in a perfect format, but it also lets you (or your research partners) add tags and notes to categorise each one easily.

Besides these features, Flowcite also allows researchers to generate bibliographies in over 7,000 different citation styles, from APA and MLA to Chicago and more. This eliminates the time-consuming task of referencing and formatting, enabling academics to put all their focus on their work.

Sign up for Flowcite today to get started on a seamless, stress-free research writing process!

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