Defining Plagiarism

Learning Objectives

  • Describe and give examples of what constitutes plagiarism

What Counts as Plagiarism?

We typically think of plagiarism as cheating. Plagiarism, however, often occurs because the process of citation can be confusing, technology makes copy + paste so easy, and knowing exactly what to cite is not always easy! You can avoid plagiarism by learning how to cite material and keeping track of sources in your notes. Give yourself plenty of time to process sources so you don’t plagiarize by mistake. Here are some examples of plagiarism:

  • Submitting a paper written by someone else.
  • Using words and phrases from the source text and patching them together in new sentences.
  • Failing to acknowledge the sources of words or information.
  • Not providing quotation marks around a direct quotation. This leads to the false assumption that the words are your own.
  • Borrowing the idea or opinion of someone else without giving the person credit
  • Restating or paraphrasing a passage without citing the original author
  • Borrowing facts or statistics that are not common knowledge without proper acknowledgment
Six different examples of plagiarism. 404 Error: inaccurate citations or citations to non-existent sources; clone: submitting another's work; copy and paste: copies portions from other texts; mash-up: mixes copied material from multiple sources; recycle: borrows from your previous work; find and replace: changing key words or phrases only.

Figure 1. The plagiarism spectrum. There are many different ways to plagiarize. It is your responsibility to know what constitutes plagiarism so you can avoid it in your assignments.

Obvious Plagiarism

Less Obvious Plagiarism

  • Turning in someone else’s paper as one’s own.
  • Turning in a paper that was bought from a service on the Internet.
  • Reusing a paper previously turned in for one class and then submitting the same paper or portions of it for subsequent classes without permission of the instructor (self-plagiarism).
  • Cutting and pasting entire sections from other authors’ works into one’s own paper.
  • Using another author’s exact words but not putting quotation marks around the quote and citing the work.
  • Failing to differentiate between common knowledge and something that needs to be cited.
  • Failing to include complete and correct citations.
  • Sticking too closely to another author’s words by only changing a few words around when paraphrasing.
  • Using another author’s exact words but not putting quotation marks around the quote even if one cites the work.
4 more plagiarism examples. Aggregator: includes proper citation to sources but almost no original work; retweet: proper citation, but relies too closely on the original wording; hybrid: combines perfectly cited sources and copied passages in the same paper; remix: paraphrases from multiple sources made to fit together.

Figure 2. More ways to plagiarize.

Intentional versus unintentional Plagiarism

It can be useful to think about the difference between unintentional and intentional plagiarism. If you get stumped on an assignment, download a paper from a website, and submit it as your own work, you have committed plagiarism. This is an obvious example of intentional plagiarism. You know you didn’t write the paper! You deliberately copied the work from a website and tried to pass it off as your own. Not good! But unintentional plagiarism is much more common and in many ways equally problematic. If you got stumped on an assignment, downloaded a paper from a website, and then tried to rewrite that paper in your own words, without giving proper credit to the website, you still have committed plagiarism, even your intent was to write your own paper. In this second example, the plagiarism may be unintentional. There’s nothing wrong with research or using websites to advance your thinking. You must, however, give proper credit to any sources you consult, including using quotations for any words that are not your own and crediting any ideas that come from elsewhere. 

Why Should You Care?

Being honest and maintaining integrity in your academic work is a sign of character and professionalism. In addition to maximizing your own learning and taking ownership of your academic success, not plagiarizing is important because

  • Your professors assign research projects to help you learn. You cheat yourself when you substitute someone else’s work for your own.
  • You don’t like it when someone else takes credit for your ideas, so don’t do it to someone else.
  • Plagiarizing comes with consequences. Depending on the offense and the institution, you may be asked to rewrite plagiarized work, receive a failing grade on the assignment, fail the entire course, or be suspended from the university.
  • Professors use search engines, databases, and specialized software to check suspicious work, so you will eventually get caught.

WaTch It

The following video demonstrates the practical importance of always giving credit where credit is due.

You can view the transcript for “Just Because You Put It In Your Own Words…” here (opens in new window).

Citing Common Knowledge and Facts

If you cite information that is common knowledge or a fact, you do not need to cite that information. Everyone would agree that the Civil War started in 1861. You don’t need a citation for that information, even if you didn’t know when the Civil War started until you looked it up! Be careful, however—if there is any controversy or complexity to the information you get from elsewhere, you want to include a source. So, for example, if you are discussing the causes of the Civil War, you probably want to cite your sources, since historians might disagree about the various causes.

Think about it this way. A reader might challenge you about something in your paper, and in that case, you want a source. No reader is going to challenge you about when the Civil War began. That’s a fact—so you don’t need a source. But if you claim that the Civil War was a conflict over federalism versus states’ rights, a reader might disagree and cite instead the centrality of slavery as a cause for the war. In this case, you would want to be able to offer your source—the expert whose opinion about the cause of the Civil War you have cited. Your reader’s argument, then, is with that source and not with you.

Try It


Is this use of information from a website plagiarism?

plag pic
  1. Yes, it is plagiarism. The writer of the paper just rearranged some of the words from the website and does not acknowledge the source.
  2. No, it is not plagiarism. The paragraph written in the research paper is different than the website so the author didn’t need to cite the original.


Is this plagiarism?

Passage from a source text with an example of a student paper in which they have paraphrased the content, included a citation in parenthesis, and also included a citation in the works cited list.
  1. Yes, it is plagiarism. The student did not use quotation marks.
  2. No, it is not plagiarism. The student gave credit to the source in the text of the paper and in the list of references

Try It

Look at a few more examples of plagiarism in the following activity.