What Is Plagiarism?

In order to avoid it, stay organized while you research

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Plagiarism is the act of taking credit for someone else's words or ideas. It's an act of intellectual dishonesty, and it comes with serious consequences. It violates university honor codes and can cause irreparable damage to a person's reputation. A plagiarized assignment may lead to a failing grade, a suspension, or an expulsion.

Clearly, the issue is not to be taken lightly. However, if you act with academic integrity, it's also nothing to fear. The best way to avoid accidental plagiarism is to understand the concept itself.  

Types of Plagiarism 

Some forms of plagiarism are obvious. Copying someone else's essay word for word and submitting it as your own? Plagiarism, of course. Turning in an essay you bought from a paper mill is, too. The issue is not always so blatant, however. In addition to overt acts of academic dishonesty, other, more complex forms of plagiarism nonetheless lead to similar consequences.

  1. Direct plagiarism is the act of copying another person's work word for word. Inserting a paragraph from a book or article into your essay, without including attribution or quotation marks, is direct plagiarism. Paying someone to write an essay for you and submitting the essay as your own work is also direct plagiarism. If you commit direct plagiarism, you're likely to be caught thanks to software and tools such as Turnitin.
  2. Paraphrase plagiarism involves making a few changes (often cosmetic) to someone else’s work, then passing it off as your own. Unless an idea is common knowledge, you cannot include it in your paper without providing a citation—even if you do not include any direct quotes. 
  3. "Mosaic" plagiarism is a combination of direct and paraphrase plagiarism. This type involves tossing various words, phrases, and sentences (some word for word, some paraphrased) into your essay without providing quotation marks or attributions.   
  4. Accidental plagiarism occurs when citations are missing or sources are cited incorrectly. Accidental plagiarism is often the result of a disorganized research process and a last-minute time crunch. Ultimately, if you fail to cite your sources appropriately, you've committed plagiarism—even if you had every intention of giving credit.

    How to Avoid Plagiarism 

    Not everyone who plagiarizes starts out with the goal of stealing someone else's work. Sometimes, plagiarism is simply the result of poor planning and a few panicky bad decisions. Don't fall victim to the plagiarism trap. Follow these tips to produce successful, original academic writing.

    Begin the research process as early as possible, preferably as soon as you receive a new assignment. Read each source carefully. Take breaks between reading sessions to absorb the information. Explain each source's key ideas out loud, without referencing the original text. Then, write down each source’s main arguments in your own words. This process will ensure you have plenty of time to absorb your sources' ideas and formulate your own.

    Write a thorough outline. After you’ve spent time researching and brainstorming, write a detailed outline of your paper. Focus on pinpointing your own original argument. As you outline, imagine yourself in conversation with your sources. Instead of restating your source's ideas, examine those ideas and consider how they relate to your own.

    Paraphrase “blind.” If you plan to explain an author’s ideas in your paper, write the explanation without looking at the original text. If you find this process tricky, try writing out the ideas in a conversational tone, as though you’re explaining the idea to a friend. Then rewrite the information in an appropriate tone for your paper. 

    Keep track of your sources. Make a list of every source you read, even the ones you don’t expect to refer to in your paper. Create a running bibliography using a free bibliography generator tool. Anytime you quote or paraphrase an author’s ideas in your draft, include the source information right next to the relevant sentence. If you’re writing a long paper, consider using a free citation organization tool such as Zotero or EndNote. With a little extra organization, accidental plagiarism is completely avoidable.

    Use an online plagiarism checker. Although online tools are not foolproof, it’s a good idea to run your paper through a plagiarism checker before submitting it. You may discover that you’ve unintentionally composed a sentence that closely resembles something written by one of your sources or failed to include a citation for one of your direct quotes. Free resources such as Quetext compare your work to millions of documents and search for close matches. Your professor probably uses these tools, and you should, too.