Paint the bike, a lesson in avoiding plagiarism

Loaner bikes in Copenhagen, Flickr photo by Let Ideas Compete

Copenhagen city planners have created wide bike lanes and timed traffic signals to favor bicycles over cars.¹  The city’s “go green” mission includes a bike share program for tourists and locals alike. To borrow a bicycle, however, you need to know that one is available, so the loaner bikes are given strong colors and distinctive design to make them stand out in a bike rack.

The first loaner bicycles were the “white bikes” in Amsterdam in 1968,² and several towns in Italy also use white bikes. Loaner bikes in Stockholm are blue and white, in Finland they are lime and turquoise, in Barcelona they are red, and in Oslo, loaner bikes are purple. The bicycles differ in paint color from city to city; however, once you have seen a bike rack of loaners in one city, spotting them in a different city is fairly easy.

When teachers ask that an essay include material from previously published sources, they are expecting those sources to be as easily identifiable as any loaner bicycle. The specifics of identification depend on which style guide your instructor chooses. The most frequently assigned citation requirements for academic papers are those of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the American Psychological Association (APA), the Council of Science Editors (CSE), and Chicago style manuals.

It’s easy to spot a borrowed bike in any country because while the paint color and decals vary some, their use is similar. Writers need a comparable indication that some of the ideas and phrases in an essay are borrowed. Neglecting to acknowledge sources misleads readers. That’s plagiarism. Let’s assume writers do not set out to steal anyone’s bicycle.

Hey, is this my bike or yours?

In order to correctly cite, it helps to know what and when to cite. Unless you need a block quotation, don’t use entire sentences as quotations. When you put full sentences in your essays it can seem to readers that you don’t understand the information well enough to weave it into your own thinking.

Instead of quoting large sections of someone else’s work, pull only the most meaningful words and phrases from your research and embed them in your own thoughts.  Separate the borrowed material from your own thoughts by placing it within quotation marks. Here’s an example of how that could look:

In April of 2010, Twitter announced to a conference of app developers that they were an important part of the business (Yarow). While the company already has “106 million users” sending “55 million tweets per day,” they confidently predict the site will grow by “300,000 new users each day.”  App developers should care about the projected growth because three-quarters of that traffic navigates “outside of” In other words, people add (tweet), read, and retweet from mobile devices three to one over logging onto the site. In fact, adding an app to Blackberry led to an uptick of “100,000 new users in just three days.”  Judging from the instant success of the Blackberry app introduction, …

Who are these Tweeters? Eighteen months ago, a Pew Research Center study said Twitter users had a median age of 31, more than one-third of them live in urban areas, and more than half of them get their news reports online or via smartphones (PewInternet). One of Twitter first employees, Dom Sagolla, …

Notice that the first sentence in the first paragraph contains a parenthetical citation. It alerts readers that the information in the sentence was originally published by someone else and is not the author’s own idea. Although there is not a direct quotation in the sentence, there still must be an indication that the information was borrowed, and from whom. However, the parenthetical citation is not repeated in every sentence thereafter because the quoted material comes from the same cited source. Until a new citation (first sentence, second paragraph) indicates a switch to another source, readers will assume the citation remains the same. When another source is needed, even if it is a return to a previously cited source, another citation is used.

Parenthetical citations are a shorthand for sources. The full information is included at the end of the essay on a Works Cited or Reference page. In this example, a full description of the original source is found as an entry on the Works Cited page under “Yarow” (which happens to be an article by Jay Yarow published at

More than words can be borrowed:  if your instructor allows you to include video, photographs, and other visuals, remember to credit those also. The style guide you use for your quotations will have instructions for visuals, too.

Make the metaphor work  for you

One way to be sure that you’ve caught all the things that need proper citations? Use your word processor’s highlighter colors or change the color of the text to help you to remember to give proper credit later. I use one color for ideas and another for words needing quotation marks, but you could also try one color for print citations and another for web. The idea is to make the borrowed material stand out from your own words.

When you flag the borrowed materials with color, you can move words and phrases around as you revise the essay, secure in the knowledge that the colorful reminder stays with the material. Once the essay is complete, add the parenthetical citations, and one by one, change the text color back to black.

¹  Colville-Andersen, Mikael. “Copenhagen’s Climate-Friendly, Bike-Friendly Streets.” 14 Dec. 2009. Web. 13 Nov. 2010.
²  DeMaio, Paul. “Why Wasn’t Amsterdam First?” The Bike-Sharing Blog. 21 April 2008. Web. 13 Nov. 2010.