Skip to main content

What is Plagiarism?

The CWPA (Council of Writing Program Administrators), defines plagiarism as:

"In an instructional setting, plagiarism occurs when a writer deliberately uses someone else’s language, ideas, or other original (not common-knowledge) material without acknowledging its source."

This definition applies to texts published in print or on-line, to manuscripts, and to the work of other student writers, and even to work the same student has done in a previous course. (That is, yes, you can plagiarize yourself.)

There is a distinction between:

  1. submitting someone else’s text as one’s own or attempting to blur the line between one’s own ideas or words and those borrowed from another source, which is plagiarism and
  2. carelessly or inadequately citing ideas and words borrowed from another source, which is the misuse of sources.

Plagiarism is a form of cheating.

This material is used with permission under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License from The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Especially at a college, students and instructors seek to expand their knowledge and create new knowledge through the process of research. This means that they rely on previous knowledge to form the building blocks of these new ideas.

Your instructors, then, want to be able to distinguish between these building blocks (the essays, books, etc. you have read) and your new ideas formed through a synthesis and analysis of these texts. This is why proper citation is so important.

Further, instructors give writing assignments because they want students to actively engage in the process of research and forming new ideas of their own. Therefore, to simply copy another’s words or ideas (that is, to plagiarize) would be antithetical to purpose of a university education.

The University of North Carolina’s Writing Center explains further:

Think of it this way: in the vast majority of assignments you’ll get in college, your instructors will ask you to read something (think of this material as the building blocks) and then write a paper in which you analyze one or more aspects of what you have read (think of this as the new structure you build). Essentially, your instructors are asking you to do three things:

  • Show that you have a clear understanding of the material you’ve read.
  • Refer to your sources to support the ideas you have developed.
  • Distinguish your analysis of what you’ve read from the authors’ analyses.

When you cite a source, you are using an expert’s ideas as proof or evidence of a new idea that you are trying to communicate to the reader.

Direct quotes are when you take somebody else’s words and include them in your paper. In these cases, you MUST put quotation marks around the beginning and end of the phrase, and you MUST record the words exactly as written in the original document. (Some citation methods allow the use of ellipses (…) to indicate words have been removed for brevity’s sake, or words to be inserted or modified in brackets to help clarify an excerpt. However, in both cases it is your responsibility to preserve the intended meaning of the quote.) The quotation must also be accompanied by the author’s name, and other information required by the citation style you are using.

However, since the goal of writing a paper is to develop your ideas, you do not want to rely too heavily on the words of others. Certainly you want to make clear the research you have done, but you also want to provide your own insights and analysis. In most cases, you want no more than 10% of you paper to be direct quotation from your sources.

Paraphrasing is when you use someone else’s ideas but not their exact words. Therefore, you take their ideas and put them in your own words. This does not mean taking swapping few words or rearranging sentences.

Additionally, you MUST include the author’s name, and other information required by the citation style you are using, just as with a direct quote.

In 2012, noted journalist Fareed Zakaria found himself in a great deal of trouble when he tried to get away with improper paraphrasing (i.e. plagiarism). An article from the Huffington Post shows the example:

Zakaria took liberally from Lepore's piece on gun control. Here is one passage Lepore wrote:

As Adam Winkler, a constitutional-law scholar at U.C.L.A., demonstrates in a remarkably nuanced new book, "Gunfigh (Shapiro)t: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America," firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start. Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813, and other states soon followed: Indiana (1820), Tennessee and Virginia (1838), Alabama (1839), and Ohio (1859). Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas explained in 1893, the "mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man."

Here is Zakaria's similar paragraph:

Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, documents the actual history in Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. Guns were regulated in the U.S. from the earliest years of the Republic. Laws that banned the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813. Other states soon followed: Indiana in 1820, Tennessee and Virginia in 1838, Alabama in 1839 and Ohio in 1859. Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas (Texas!) explained in 1893, the "mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man."

Although there are dangers to be aware of, paraphrasing is your chance to:

  1. demonstrate you understand the material by putting it in your own words
  2. clarify any unnecessarily complicated jargon or terminology used in the original source
  3. maintain the tone and flow of your paper

Usually, information that is “common knowledge” does not need to be cited. (For example, you do not need to cite a source to state that George Washington was the first president of the United States.) But what is “common knowledge” depends on the field in which you’re studying, the amount of time you have been practicing in that field, and other factors as well.

Two basic criteria must be met for something to be considered common knowledge:

  1. the information is found in many places or sources, and
  2. the information is known by a lot of people

Another helpful question to ask yourself is: Did I know this before I took this class or began the research? If the answer is no, or you are unsure about the above criteria, then play it safe and cite the source.  

Avoiding plagiarism begins well before you start writing the paper.

The first step is to begin allow yourself enough time to do the following:

  1. conduct the necessary the research
  2. compile notes from the research
  3. synthesize the material
  4. draft a paper
  5. revise the paper.

Because there are so many steps inherent in any research paper, students who wait until the last minute may panic and resort to plagiarism even when they did not intend to at the beginning.

The second step is to make sure you clearly understand the requirements and expectations of the assignment. Again, this means starting early. If you are unsure about anything, ask your instructor.

The third step is to take clear and concise notes. Paraphrase the original text into your own words. Use quotation marks for any content that has been taken directly from the original source. Develop a strategy for recording and clearly distinguishing between the (1) direct quotes from your sources, (2) the paraphrased ideas from your sources, and (3) your own thoughts and insights that occur as you conduct the research. (Some students use color-coding or simply record each in different places.) Be sure to record names, titles and page numbers as you go. Citeevery source of information you use in your paper unless it is common knowledge or the results of your own research.

The final step is drafting your paper, making sure you continuously credit the words and ideas of your sources that you use in the paper, while adding your own thoughts and conclusions to make it truly your own.

The University of North Carolina’s Writing Center provides this helpful checklist. You need to cite your source, even if:

  1. you put all direct quotes in quotation marks.
  2. you changed the words used by the author into synonyms.
  3. you completely paraphrased the ideas to which you referred.
  4. your sentence is mostly made up of your own thoughts, but contains a reference to the author’s ideas.
  5. you mention the author’s name in the sentence.

Works Referenced

Defining and Avoiding Plagarism. 2010. 14 March 2014

Shapiro, Jack Mirkinson and Rebecca. Fareed Zakaria Suspended For Plagiarism: Time Editor, CNN Host Apologizes For 'Terrible Mistake'. 10 August 2012. 14 March 2014

The Writing Center. 2013. 14 March 2014

Think plagiarism is just an issue for college students writing research papers? Think again!  Check out these real world examples of celebrities being accused of plagiarizing.

Plagiarism may take many forms:

  • cheating,
  • copying information directly without providing quotation marks,
  • failing to cite sources, or
  • citing sources incorrectly.

It does not matter whether you intended to plagiarize or whether the plagiarism occurred unintentionally; it still constitutes academic dishonesty. Ignorance of the rules of correct citation is not an acceptable excuse.

Loading ...

Cheating, Ethics, and Plagiarism

Plagiarism: Don't Do It

Posted with permission from Lehman College.