What is Plagiarism, Really?

typing-690856_960_720Plagiarism is the bogeyman of academic writing. You’d better not do it, or terrible things will happen. I know you’ve heard about it a million times, but how confident about knowing whether you’re doing it or not?

Most students don’t want to plagiarize, but sometimes it can be difficult to know what is or is not acceptable (even for faculty and librarians!). The problem is that there is not a clear, fixed line to identify and then stay on the correct side of. Instead, there are multiple factors to be evaluated and considerable gray area for any single use of a source, and frequently dozens of instances throughout a paper when taken as a whole. One thing that can help however is looking at general patterns of use and misuse, to better calibrate your plagiarism detecting skills. This infographic from TurnItIn identifies 10 common types of unoriginal work, so let’s break them down.


The offenses are roughly ordered according to the severity of the infraction, beginning with the classic definition of plagiarism: copying and pasting, whether a sentence or an entire paper, and presenting it as your own work (clone). It’s easy to understand why this is a bad thing, and it’s also pretty easy to identify, especially with the help of Google and tools like Safe Assign. Frequently the guilty party will mix sections of copied material with properly cited sections (hybrid), his or her own writing (ctrl-c), or draw on a variety of sources (mashup) in an attempt to disguise the plagiarism. To ethically include another author’s words in your paper, you will need to indicate that it’s a direct quote using quotation marks, mention the original author in the sentence or an in-text citation (with the page number!), and include a complete citation for that source in your bibliography.

From Plagiarism 101

Even when students know they need to give credit and write in their own words, there are a number of pitfalls to avoid. Paraphrasing, or taking the ideas but not the exact words of another author is another gray area. The goal is to change the language in a fundamental way such that it becomes your own original work, but at the same time still accurately represent and give credit to the idea’s originator. When students aren’t confident in their writing skills, don’t fully understand the source material, or are, ahem, lazy, they can fall back on shortcuts that often result in some degree of plagiarism. Inadequate paraphrasing will result if you try to change the original excerpt by swapping out a few terms for synonyms (find – replace). A better technique is to read, take notes, and process the source material, then put it aside and write without looking at the original text. Of course summary and paraphrase require in-text citation just like quotations do. This applies to using one source or several (remix), and can still get you in trouble even if you provide the appropriate citation (re-tweet), but fail to paraphrase sufficiently.

Not sure or just want to know more? Check out the presentation Plagiarism 101: Academic Integrity at Touro College

Another serious issue is when the citations given in the paper or the bibliography don’t match up with what the source says or even any source at all (404 error). When you use outside material (quotes, ideas, numbers, images, etc.), you’ll need to give credit at the time of use (in-text citation) and provide the source’s complete identifying information in your bibliography. Exactly what you include and how this looks will depend on the citation style you are using (MLA, APA, etc.), but the idea is the same. If there’s in in-text citation that doesn’t have a corresponding entry in your bibliography (or vice versa), or if the source cannot be identified from the information you provide, these are red flags. Sometimes this is just the result of a careless mistake or benign confusion, but sometimes it’s an indication of plagiarism. A more insidious and more egregious form of plagiarism is fabricating sources, whether by making up information for sources that don’t actually exist or adding citations to real but unused works. Yes, I have often looked up the page given in an in-text citation to make sure that the source and the section of the paper match up!

It may come as a surprise, but it’s also possible to plagiarize yourself (recycle). This is an issue because plagiarism is not actually about permission (that’s copyright), but about indicating the original source for all content. In terms of academic writing, another component is course credit. Students earn credit hours according to specific criteria based on Department of Education regulations for the “measure of the level of instruction and academic rigor,” and it would be unethical to receive credit twice for the same assignment. In some cases, an instructor may allow you to use a previous paper as the basis for an expanded or heavily edited version, but it is essential to receive prior permission and determine what your new contribution will be.

While the last type of unoriginal work isn’t the kind of plagiarism that will get you into serious trouble, it is still undesirable and will affect the grade your paper earns. Although a major feature of a research paper is that it is based on, well, the research, there is a reason that you’re writing a paper and not just collecting a bibliography. Even if you’ve reworded and quoted appropriately, dutifully added in-text citations, and completed your bibliography, if you haven’t included any original work (aggregator), you’re still not done! Not only do your instructors want to know what you think and understand about your topic, but it’s your responsibility as a writer to add value (synthesize) rather than simply rehash other people’s work.

From Plagiarism 101

If you ever have questions about using sources ethically, ask an instructor or librarian for help. For more information on the rules of different citation styles and tools that can help you save time creating your bibliography, take a look at our Creating Citations LibGuide.

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