Healing yourself of the “copy & paste syndrome”
Templates can be a life saver for many young scholars and less experienced writers, especially when instructions for your documents are vague. When you finally get your hands on that perfect template, it is very easy to get drawn into “copying and pasting” certain sections, even though this may be entirely unintentional. Plagiarism — either direct, self, mosaic, or accidental — is totally unacceptable at any level of scholarship. Known plagiarism cases have led to the denial of admission/scholarship opportunities and even revocation of admission offers and conferred degrees. With that in mind, here is how you can develop completely original documents from relevant templates.
- Have more than one template for a particular document
Say you are looking to write a personal statement for a scholarship, it may be preferable to compare more than one template to identify the required flow and style of writing. If you have to select one template to follow, I personally prefer to go with that from a less popular source.
2. Assume your chosen template is the answer to specific questions
For each paragraph in your template, imagine that it is providing answers to certain questions.
3. The hard part — figure out the questions
Now is the time to create, or recreate the questions your template has answered. Write out this questions preferably by paragraph and in a similar flow as seen in template.
For example, here is a sample paragraph from a statement of purpose
“Obesity and cardiovascular diseases run in my family. These ailments are continual sources of economic and social burden to us since I was little. I have now learned from the World Bank’s data that obesity is a global epidemic, with a 32% prevalence rate in adults worldwide. More troubling is the increasing incidence of childhood obesity which is projected to be 25% prevalent in children (<18 years) by the year 2030. Since obesity is associated with several chronic diseases and an increased morbidity rate, childhood obesity will likely impact the global health of the future workforce resulting in a significant economic burden if it goes unchecked. Therefore, my goal is to make significant contributions to stem the prevalence of childhood obesity via high-quality research, teaching, and outreach. To advance this goal and further my professional training, I am applying to the doctoral program in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of XYZ.”
What are some of the questions answered in this paragraph? In my estimation, I would think of some of the following:
- What is the research problem I will focus on in grad school?
- Any personal link to this problem?
- Any statistics to back up the need to address this problem?
- What is my career goal?
- Why and where am I applying to?
Let’s see another example of a paragraph from an email to a potential supervisor:
“I am a current MS candidate in the Biology Department at BIU University, Singapore. This Fall, I am hoping to apply for admission into the PhD in Biomedical Science program at ABC University. I am writing to notify you of my deep interest to join your lab with a central focus on 3D organ development. During my habitual literature review, I came across your group and became fascinated with some of your recent papers in the XYZ journals, including: Ping et al. 2018, <Title of Article>, and Riwan et al. 2019, <Title of Article>. Presently, my goal is to pursue 3D organoid models of the brain to better understand neural networks that may be manipulated to improve the prognosis of patients with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.”
Questions answered here would include:
- What is my current status?
- Where am I applying to?
- Why am I writing?
- How did I come across you and your work?
- What is my training or research goal?
4. Walk away from the template
After developing these questions, now is the time to walk away from the template for some time. This helps you to erase your memory of phrases or sentences from the template.
Better still, thrash the template if you are writing a short document. If you develop the questions well enough, there is little need to refer back to the template.
5. Answer the questions you have developed from the template
When you are ready, use the questions you have developed for each paragraph of the template to draft your own unique document. Just answer the questions and put them together in complete sentences.
6. Edit, edit, and edit
Keep editing till you are satisfied. In almost all cases, it is beneficial to use a second pair of eyes to review the complete document before submission.
Avoiding plagiarism makes you experience an exhilarating amount of pride knowing that every single word that got you that opportunity was squeezed out of you. Hopefully, this is helpful. Importantly, I hope to learn additional tricks you may have used to avoid plagiarism while using templates.