What Constitutes Plagiarism?

Plagiarism stars

Generally speaking, people know they should not plagiarize.  Plagiarism is simple, right? It’s when a person claims credit for work that is not theirs.  However, I have seen many excuses for plagiarism once an individual is caught.  Suddenly, it seems, the rules of engagement were unclear.  The person didn’t mean to do it!

Unfortunately, however, most people find it difficult to judge intent, so if you are caught plagiarizing, you will probably have to face the consequences–ignorance is not innocence.  To avoid that scenario, here are some simple rules to follow to ensure that you are doing your best to give others credit for their work.

  1. You cannot just quote someone by saying “As Aristotle once said….”  and leaving it there with no book or page number.  You need to provide the source where you found this quote.  This enables your readers to judge its credibility.  (And, once you do some research, you might actually discover Aristotle never said that at all.  How awkward if someone else had discovered this first.)
  2. There is such a thing as self-plagiarism.  You may have written the paper yourself, but you cannot turn it in for more than one class.  If you must use your previous work, it is possible to cite yourself.  Academic authors often do, especially if they are one of the few people working in a particular field.
  3. If you think of an idea and then read it later in a book, you need to cite the book.  You may have been really pleased with your own cleverness, but the people reading your work have no way to verify that your thought came first.  Better safe than sorry.
  4. It is possible to try to rephrase something, but do it in such a way that your sentences still resemble the original text too closely.  If you do this, you will probably be accused of something like academic misconduct rather than plagiarism, but you still want to avoid this scenario.  If you are unsure how to rephrase something sufficiently, it is probably better to quote the original text directly.
  5. If your classmate says something in seminar that you think is brilliant, you have to credit your classmate when you put their thought in your paper.  Likewise, if someone gives you an idea in a conversation or through email, you should credit that person.  (Keep in mind that some professors may not want you discussing your work with other people.  I once took a class where it was against the honor code even to ask someone to proofread your paper.  Always abide by the course policy.)
  6. Plagiarism is more than copying and pasting paragraphs or large chunks of text into your paper.  Taking a sentence from a source here and a source there and sprinkling them throughout your paper without citation is still unethical, as is interspersing your sentences with phrases drawn from others’ work.

Remember, when in doubt, cite your sources!  Citing your sources  demonstrates that you have done your research and are equipped to speak on a subject, allows your readers to assess the credibility of your evidence, and gives credit to all the great people who helped you produce your work.  If you don’t know how to cite something properly or are unsure if you have paraphrased too closely, always ask your instructor before the work is due.  They want to help you!

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8 thoughts on “What Constitutes Plagiarism?

  1. Briana says:

    Along the lines of attributing things your classmates say, technically you are supposed to provide a citation for any ideas you get from your professor during lecture. Most professors do not enforce this rule; they are completely aware you are referencing something they themselves said. HOWEVER, I recommend actually citing this to a lot of my students for another reason: It really clarifies how much of the paper is your original thoughts and how much is the professor’s lecture paraphrased. Granted, I don’t think anyone has ever taken my advice in this matter, but spending 5 pages just saying what the professor already told you is unlikely to get you higher than a B+ on a paper, so it’s really worth thinking about. If citing the information is what will get you to see how much of your work is actually your professor’s work, you should try it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I guess instructors perhaps expect most students to parrot back what they hear in lecture because that’s what the students think the professor wants to hear/that’s most of what they know about the topic? But I think you’re correct in noting that enforcing such citation rules would help students recognize how much they’re parroting and how much they’re offering themselves.


  2. TeacherofYA says:

    Now this is a helpful post. People don’t realize you can plagiarize yourself. They also don’t realize that not citing correctly counts as plagiarism, but most teachers will point that out instead of failing you. Most, not all. Depends on the professor.
    I’m hoping everyone has a good upcoming semester!


    • Krysta says:

      I think most instructors would distinguish between academic misconduct and plagiarism, but when we talk about it we just say “plagiarism” as a sort of shorthand. For example, if someone gave an incorrect citation but seemingly did try to give credit, the instructor would probably call it “academic misconduct” and not report that student but talk to them instead. If the student cited a section but the sentence was really from another uncited source, that looks sketchier, so that might be considered plagiarism. I think instructors do try to work with students who are trying to learn and just doing things wrong by accident, but it can also be difficult to determine the intent behind a particular citation.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hilary @ SongsWroteMyStory says:

    Great post! Where was this 6 years ago when I started university?

    My music history prof had a rule that basically said if you weren’t sure if you had to cite something, you should cite it. Better to be over the top than to miss something.


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