How to Use a Writing Cleanroom to Avoid Plagiarism

Be sure to wash your hands...

By BioClean Cleanroom (Employed a photographer to take photos) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By BioClean Cleanroom (Employed a photographer to take photos) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
In the physical world, a cleanroom (or clean room) is a controlled space that strives to prevent outside contaminants from getting inside. They are commonly used in manufacturing and scientific research environments as a way to ensure that dust, microbes and other contaminants can’t interfere with the work inside.

A writing cleanroom is very similar, it’s a controlled writing space, usually a word processor, into which no outside contaminants, in this case uncited text, is allowed in.

It’s a simple and effective way to avoid accidental plagiarism. While it may seem to be an obvious approach to writing, especially in academic environments, it’s an approach that’s used all-too-infrequently judging from the number of journalists, students and other writers who claim to have used text that they failed to rewrite.

The simple truth is that mingling original text with uncited copied text is extremely dangerous. Even if you have the best of intentions to rewrite or cite it later, those intentions can get lost as the project moves along, especially if poor time management and organization skills creep up.

Using a writing cleanroom isn’t just the best way to avoid plagiarism, it’s by far the easiest way to write. All one has to to do is remember one very basic rule.

The Basic Tenant of a Writing Cleanroom

The entire concept of a writing cleanroom can be summarized in one simple rule:

No unoriginal text should be pasted or otherwise enter into a work in progress without immediate citation being applied.

In short, the act of copying and pasting (or simply retyping) text into your work should be treated with extreme reverence. If the text is not yours, it needs to be cited immediately after pasting.

The reason for this is simple. Even if you intend to go back and rewrite a copied section or remove it altogether, time or memory might prevent that from happening. If it does, you are still ultimately responsible for that uncited text.

In short, by never mingling uncited text into your work, you avoid even the potential of committing verbatim plagiarism. While it’s still possible to plagiarize facts and information, if you’re citing as you go through, you’re much less likely to do that as well.

While this process is simple enough, it’s actually counter to how many write. While this approach is “write and cite”, others take a “write first, cite later” approach. The problem with the latter is that citation is much more difficult after the fact and it’s easy to forget what needs to be done.

How to Use a Writing Cleanroom

The approach to using a writing cleanroom is fairly simple and can be best summarized in these steps:

  1. Never mix unoriginal and original text in the same document. Notes, pasteboards and other tools that might have unoriginal text should be stored elsewhere.
  2. When pasting text into your work, decide first if it’s text that needs to be copied. Would this information be better or equally-well presented as a paraphrase? If so, put it away and paraphrase the information instead. After you’re done, be sure to cite the source of the information immediately.
  3. If you decide copying the text is appropriate, do so but immediately put it in either quotes or block-quotes as appropriate and add other needed citations.
  4. Be careful to not remove any citation marks through reformatting or editing of the document. This can be especially problematic if you use block-quotes but convert the document to a format that doesn’t support it.

There are exceptions to this, of course. I routinely copy and paste in names to avoid misspelling them and the same is true for long numbers or anything else where a mistake is likely. However, those are short one to three word passages, not significant portions of text.

When dealing with actual language written by others, the basic principle is that you should never mingle your words with others without immediately adding citations. If that simple principle is followed, the chances of accidentally (or as I prefer to think of it, negligent) plagiarism drops to nearly zero.

The key is to make citation part of the writing process, not the editing process. Uncited text and information is something that should never be in your work in the first place, not something to be edited out later.

A Word on Paraphrasing

One of the most difficult things to explain when it comes to plagiarism is how to paraphrase. Many students, when trying to understand how to do it, ask questions like “How much of the original do I have to change?” or “What if I just rearrange the sentences?”

However, that’s the wrong way to look at paraphrasing. Paraphrasing is not about changing the words someone else wrote, but rather, writing the information in your own words.

The easiest way to achieve this is to read the information you want to paraphrase and then put it away. Don’t copy it and don’t look at it. From there, just write the information in your words.

A great way to spot a bad paraphrase is if the paraphrased content reads differently than other text in the work. It should have the same voice and tone as the rest of the writing.

As for when to use a paraphrase versus a quote, quotes are best used when there’s some reason for leaving the quote author’s voice intact. There can be many reasons for this including that the original author has a first-person account that’s important or their word choice was integral to the point.

However, if there’s no reason to use the specific words the author said, it’s likely best to paraphrase instead.

Bottom Line

The strange thing about this approach, to me at least, is that this is not only the easiest way to avoid plagiarism, but also the easiest way to write in general.

Going back and adding citations or rewriting text after the fact isn’t just risky, its more difficult and requires far more work.

But more to the point, not thinking about citation as you are bringing in other people’s writing isn’t just setting yourself up for an accident, it’s negligence. As I said in my previous post, getting to the point that you have uncited text in your work either requires malice or negligence, there’s pretty much no other way.

So, while this article for many writers is a very basic one about how to incorporate the works of others in your writing, it’s still a necessary one. Too many people, and not just students, either never learned or forgot these simple principles.

Hopefully, this article can do a little bit to educate on them and bring them to the forefront of writing.

Header Image by Rudolf Simon (M+W Group GmbH) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons