What Is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is using someone else’s work and passing it off as one’s own. The term originates from the Latin word plagiaries, which means kidnapper. It also has another root word in Greek, plagios, literally means crooked or treacherous. (Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary 1031).

In academia, plagiarism is defined as “an intentional act of deception involving the presentation of someone else’s wording as a student’s own when the student is well aware that the language or general organization of the paper has come from another source” (Dr. Quickwit, Plagiarizm: How Profs Spot a Cheat).

In other words, plagiarism is the use of words and/or ideas from another source, without appropriate attribution. To put it bluntly, plagiarism refers to stealing someone else’s work or ideas, and passing it off as one’s own. For a researcher, this form of scientific misconduct represents fraud of the worst order.

The NSF (National Science Foundation) and the ORI (office of Research Integrity) have each adopted a narrow definition of plagiarism within scientific misconduct. For the NSF and ORI, plagiarism includes the theft of words, ideas, findings or methods without giving the original source.

To some professional organizations, word for word copying is plagiarism; to others paraphrasing without acknowledging the source. This means that if a student uses another writer’s work without giving credit, it may be considered deceptive, even if it is an honest mistake.

Preventing plagiarism is also a critical part of the academic integrity that is expected, or even required, by educational institutions. Many schools and colleges have well-defined codes of honor or conduct that prohibit dishonesty, including cheating and plagiarizing. You should be aware of the rules and consequences for dishonesty in your academic setting.

Understanding the Evidence of plagiarism

To determine that a piece of writing contains textual plagiarism, three things must be true.

  1. First, the new text must contain words and/or ideas that are also present in an earlier text. In principle, plagiarism could involve the appropriation of ideas expressed entirely in new language; however, in practice, it is often the similarity of language that arouses suspicion and serves as evidence of plagiarism. The linguistic relationship between two texts is, therefore, an important element.
  2. Secondly, to meet the definition of textual plagiarism, a new text must repeat words or ideas from an earlier one; that is, the similarity between two texts cannot be coincidental. This is one reason why those in the position of trying to determine whether plagiarism has occurred—for example, teachers or members of disciplinary boards—take length into account.

    The longer the chunks of language that two texts share, intuition suggests, the greater the likelihood that plagiarism has occurred. If it were possible to be certain that similarities between two texts were entirely coincidental, the label plagiarism would not be applied to it. Writing processes are, therefore, a key to understanding plagiarism.
  3. The third and final criterion is that the new text must fail to attribute its relationship to an earlier one, or fail to attribute it adequately. Quotation, for example, involves the intentional repetition of language in a prior text, but provided that quotation marks are in place and the source is cited, plagiarism is not involved.

    However, whether attribution is adequate is not determined by absolute principles; among the factors that must be taken into account are the reader’s understanding and the conventional expectations of the discourse community in which the text is produced.

Understanding when to give credit

Because information, pictures, and music are now easy to copy from the Internet, it’s more tempting than ever to find and freely use those materials. How can you tell when it is appropriate to use something without a citation Opens in new window and when it isn’t?

Generally, any time you use someone else’s work as a source of ideas or inspiration, credit is required. There are a few exceptions, such as when the information is common knowledge. An example of common knowledge is the fact that Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1492.

To be safe, if you consult a source and that source’s ideas become part of your work, then you need to cite that source. If you use a direct quotation, then you need to reproduce it accurately and cite it correctly. These practices prevent inadvertent plagiarizing, and this guide provides the basics to get you started.

Important Tip  

When you consult a source, cite it correctly.

Make sure to check your instructor’s preferences. Many students worry that their own words do not sound as professional as those used by the original author. The point of using a source in the first place is to give you an opportunity to bring in outside authorities to support your own ideas, as expressed in your own words. Instructors do not give assignments so that students can give them back in someone else’s words.

Instructors want to read your words. If instructors wanted to read only the professional author’s words and ideas, they could go directly to the original source and skip yours. It’s important for you to work with ideas and to express them in writing so that you can develop your own writing style, perspective, voice, and analytical skills. This is a big investment of time and effort. Often when students risk plagiarizing, they haven’t allowed themselves sufficient time to complete an assignment. This miscalculation can lead to trouble.

Important Tip  

Know the rules about plagiarism; ignorance is no excuse.

Knowing the rules

Because academic integrity and the validity of a college degree are vitally important to institutions of higher learning, schools create codes and policies governing instances of dishonesty.

These policies come under various headings: Academic Integrity, Academic Honesty, Honor Code, Cheating, Student Conduct Code, or Plagiarism. They list rules, definitions, and specific behaviors that are considered cheating. These codes also describe consequences and the various procedures that occur when a student is caught cheating.

  • It is your responsibility to know the rules of your institution and to follow them.

Rules are usually published in school catalogs and are considered a part of the enrollment agreement for the college. If you have any questions about academic policies, check with your instructor or the dean’s office to get the facts.

When instructors suspect plagiarism, they are obligated to follow steps prescribed by the institution to address the problem. These steps include contacting the student and forwarding a report to the dean or a disciplinary committee, and a possible hearing before either or both.

Consequences to the student can include failing the assignment or even the entire course. Some institutions assign community service or some other restitution to the campus community as part of the punishment. Some students have been unhappily surprised to learn that the consequences for a first-time offense of plagiarism can be as severe as expulsion. Being caught as a plagiarizer is humiliating and can also be costly. It can directly affect a student’s progress toward a degree. And it is entirely avoidable.

Don’t gamble with your academic future. Taking the risk with the expectation that you won’t get caught can result in consequences much worse than a warning or a simple failing grade on an assignment. This kind of high-stakes gambling can make you a loser. Keep the odds in your favor. If you aren’t prepared, it’s better to get a poor grade on one assignment than fail in a class (or worse) because you panicked and plagiarized.

Avoiding plagiarism

The following are twelve guidelines to help you avoid plagiarizing, and ensure good practices when writing a paper:

  • Do your own work and use your own words.
  • Allow yourself enough time to research the assignment.
  • Keep careful track of your sources.
  • Take careful notes.
  • Make it clear who is speaking.
  • Credit the source.
  • Cite sources correctly.
  • Quote accurately and sparingly.
  • Paraphrase and cite.
  • Do not patchwrite   Opens in new window.
  • Summarize.
  • Avoid using other student’s papers and paper mills.

Historical Background of Plagiarism

The word plagiarism itself has origins in antiquity, and its negative associations stretch back as far: ‘the derivation from the Latin word plagiaries meaning “kidnap” or “plunder” is indicative of how since its first usage in this way it has been regarded as a criminal activity—parallel to stealing other people’s offspring!’ (Angélil-Carter, 2000, pp. 16-17).

Plagiarism in its modern sense, though, could not exist without the closely related ideas of copyright and intellectual property, the initial development of which, in the fifteenth century, was contemporary with that of the printing press. This innovation allowed texts to circulate more widely and profitably, and raised two perennially relevant questions: Who should control the distribution of texts? And who should profit from them?

A landmark event in intellectual property law came in England in 1557 when the Stationer’s Company, a trade organization of book sellers, was granted a Royal Charter, giving it the ability effectively to authorize the publication of books. Financial benefits from this arrangement accrued to the stationers, while the monarch obtained the stationers’ services as censors, an important advantage, ‘for with the coming of print to the West at the end of the fifteenth century, both Church and State had reason to fear the proliferation of blasphemous or seditious ideas’ (Baron, 2000, p. 59).

At this point the author was a marginal figure, and the rights in and benefits from publications accrued to those who produced and sold books. The adage that freedom of the press applies only to those who own one was fully relevant throughout the sixteenth century. With the coming of the Enlightenment, though, this began to change. Locke established that the act of creation was implicated in the ownership of property, a cornerstone in the concept of authorship and authors’ rights (Baron, 2000; Halbert, 1999; Howard, 1999).

The next development, and according to Howard the ‘most significant for the place of plagiarism in intellectual hierarchy today is the premise that the writer is capable of producing an original text, one of a kind. This premise was supplied energetically by a succession of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers’ (1999, p. 22).

It is no coincidence, then, that copyright laws assigning rights and benefits to the author began to appear in this period. In 1710 the Statute of Queen Anne gave authors a copyright for a period of 14 years. Subsequent Copyright Acts were passed in 1814 and 1842, the latter extending the period of protection to 42 years, or 7 years postmortem auctoris (Baron, 2000). Lobbying for these changes were prominent literary names with familiar financial motives:

  • In an effort to live by the pen, to promote their own writing in a market awash in printed matter, Romantic poets from Herder and Goethe to Wordsworth and Coleridge tended to emphasize the element of innovation in composition—to stress their break with tradition to create something utterly new, unique—in a word, ‘original.’ (Woodmansee and Jaszi, 1995, p. 769)

The trend in copyright law since has been increasing inclusivity about what uses violate copyright, and longer copyrights periods (Woodmansee and Jaszi, 1995).

The view of plagiarism as an infringement on the rights of the author rests, therefore, on a view of the rights of the author which arose in a particular sociohistorical context (Pennycook, 1994, 1996; Scollon, 1994, 1995). Plagiarism is not a violation of an absolute standard; it is the product of a product context and cannot be judged without reference to the context in which it occurs.