Plagiarism: What It is and How to Recognize and Avoid It

What is Plagiarism and Why is it Important?
Other forms of plagiarism
Plagiarism and the World Wide Web
How Can Students Avoid Plagiarism?
Terms You Need to Know (or What is Common Knowledge?)
What is a ‘Unique Phrase’?
Don’t be Afraid to Express Your Views

What is Plagiarism and Why is it Important?

In college courses, we are continually engaged with other people’s ideas: we read them in texts, hear them in lecture, discuss them in class, and incorporate them into our own writing. As a result, it is very important that we give credit where it is due. Plagiarism is using others’ ideas and words without clearly acknowledging the source of that information. Specific examples of plagiarism are:

    1. Copying without proper documentation (quotation marks and a citation) written or spoken words, phrases, or sentences from any source;
    2. Summarizing without proper documentation (usually a citation) ideas from another source (unless such information is recognized as common knowledge);
    3. Borrowing facts, statistics, graphs, pictorial representations, or phrases without acknowledging the source (unless such information is recognized as common knowledge);
    4. Collaborating on a graded assignment without the instructor’s approval;
    5. Submitting work, either in whole or in part, created by a professional service and used without attribution (e.g., paper, speech, bibliography, or photograph).  (12)
    6. You take ideas about a historical event from a history professor’s blog and do not provide credit for those ideas in your history paper.
    7. You find a journal article with data accumulated by scientists about Japanese honeysuckle and use it as your own data in a biology paper.
    8. You copy Mark Twain’s ideas about humor writing word-for-word in your English paper without any quotation marks.
    9. You neglect to provide a citation and reference for information that you have paraphrased.

Other forms of plagiarism

Plagiarism can also occur in your use of illustrations, maps, and tables. Your captions need to acknowledge any material or ideas taken from a source that is not your own. Remember that you also need to avoid plagiarism in an oral presentation. You need to make appropriate acknowledgements of the authors you quote, both in your talk and in the slides that you use.


Plagiarism and the World Wide Web

The World Wide Web has become a more popular source of information for student papers, and many questions have arisen about how to avoid plagiarizing these sources. In most cases, the same rules apply as to a printed source: when a writer must refer to ideas or quote from a WWW site, she must cite that source.

If a writer wants to use visual information from a WWW site, many of the same rules apply. Copying visual information or graphics from a WWW site (or from a printed source) is very similar to quoting information, and the source of the visual information or graphic must be cited. These rules also apply to other uses of textual or visual information from WWW sites; for example, if a student is constructing a web page as a class project, and copies graphics or visual information from other sites, she must also provide information about the source of this information. In this case, it might be a good idea to obtain permission from the WWW site’s owner before using the graphics.


How Can Students Avoid Plagiarism?

To avoid plagiarism, you must give credit whenever you use

  • another person’s idea, opinion, or theory;
  • any facts, statistics, graphs, drawings—any pieces of information—that are not common knowledge;
  • quotations of another person’s actual spoken or written words; or
  • paraphrase of another person’s spoken or written words.

Try these:

  1. Put in quotations everything that comes directly from the text especially when taking notes.
  2. Paraphrase, but be sure you are not just rearranging or replacing a few words. Instead, read over what you want to paraphrase carefully; cover up the text with your hand, or close the text so you can’t see any of it (and so aren’t tempted to use the text as a “guide”). Write out the idea in your own words without peeking.
  3. Check your paraphrase against the original text to be sure you have not accidentally used the same phrases or words, and that the information is accurate.
      1. make a list of all sources as you consult them. This includes websites that you come across while searching for a particular topic or just surfing. Write down all necessary bibliographic information immediately. Not only will this strategy save time and effort later, but it will also help prevent your forgetting which sources you’ve consulted.
      2. keep track of which ideas and phrases come from which source. Use quotation marks precisely around phrases directly cited from a source. Write down page numbers.
      3. clearly distinguish your own ideas from those of others. Don’t mix your own opinions into notes taken from another source.



Terms You Need to Know (or What is Common Knowledge?)

Common knowledge: facts that can be found in numerous places and are likely to be known by a lot of people.

Example: John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States in 1960.

This is generally known information. You do not need to document this fact.

However, you must document facts that are not generally known and ideas that interpret facts.

Example: According to the American Family Leave Coalition’s new book, Family Issues and Congress, President Bush’s relationship with Congress has hindered family leave legislation (6).

The idea that “Bush’s relationship with Congress has hindered family leave legislation” is not a fact but an interpretation; consequently, you need to cite your source.

What is a ‘Unique Phrase’?

A unique phrase does need an internal citation. A unique phrase is one which is coined by an author and used commonly by other authors in a specific genre or discipline, but it is not necessarily a common fact or phrase used by everyone.


Quotation: using someone’s words. When you quote, place the passage you are using in quotation marks, and document the source according to a standard documentation style.

The following example uses the Modern Language Association’s style:

Example: According to Peter S. Pritchard in USA Today, “Public schools need reform but they’re irreplaceable in teaching all the nation’s young” (14).


For professionals who are caught committing plagiarism, loss of their reputation, and even loss of their job or potential income, is a serious matter (e.g., see this story in Poynter, Sept. 7, 2012).

For students in college, getting caught for committing plagiarism can result in a failing grade for a paper or project, or even an entire course. Commission of plagiarism can lead to an academic disciplinary hearing.

Don’t be afraid to express your own views

Many students are hesitant about expressing their own opinion, particularly if it contradicts the views of ‘experts’. Work that is published and printed in books and learned journals is not necessarily always right nor the very last word on a topic. In the humanities and social sciences in particular, much academic writing is based on informed opinion rather than indisputable fact. Do not be afraid to have your own views on a subject. What is important is that your views should be informed, clearly expressed and based on careful consideration and knowledge of both the relevant facts and of the views of those who are acknowledged to have expertise on the topic.

It may be much more difficult for science students to have new ideas or make original contributions to their subject in the early stages of their scientific education. What you can show in your writing is that you are aware of all the relevant information, and have a full knowledge and understanding of the scientific principles that underpin the experiments that you write up or the reports that you complete. When you carry out an experiment, the method you use is perhaps unlikely to be your own, and you may well need to acknowledge the source of the particular methodology you employ. However, the results that you obtain when you carry out the experiment are your own, and in their analysis and interpretation you can make your own contribution.