What Is Plagiarism?

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And What About Accidental Plagiarism?

The most common form of plagiarism is the act of using words and ideas that you copy or borrow from a source without giving credit to the proper person or entity. Plagiarism is also over-borrowing from a source or several sources, then summarizing and synthesizing to claim as your own work.

Many students feel they are safe from accusations of plagiarism because they don't repeat phrases word for word, but plagiarism extends beyond "copy and paste" tactics.


In a nutshell, you cannot put certain things into your paper without explaining where the information comes from, and you can't claim the work of others as your own original work. You must be able to show where all of these originated:

  • Ideas
  • Quotes
  • Facts
  • Statistics
  • Statements
  • Passages

Obvious Types of Plagiarism

Some types of plagiarism are easy to avoid:

  • Never cut and paste passages into your work from an Internet site.
  • Don't retype a passage and replace key words here and there to make the passage "just different enough."
  • Don't buy or borrow a paper and turn it in as your own work.
  • Don't use ideas from a source without citing it.

While these types of plagiarism are easy to avoid, other types of plagiarism can be unintentional.

Example of Plagiarizing an Idea

Student A is working on a research assignment for history class. For this assignment, the student is challenged to write about a turning point in women's history.

Student A finds a journal article that puts forth the argument that factory work or mill work in the 1840s offered many women a boost in their social status. Student A writes a paper using the same thesis.

Even if the student collects his or her own supporting evidence to prove the same thesis--the thesis is unfairly "borrowed" from another.

It's plagiarism.

The student could avoid plagiarizing the original thesis by examining several articles about mill work (citing each source) and coming up with a twist or a completely new conclusion.

Alternatively, the student could examine three types of women's work in the 1840s and discuss whether mill work (as opposed to other occupations) had the most profound impact on women's lives. In either solution, the student is obligated to cite every source to avoid plagiarizing the work of others.

Plagiarizing a Quote or Statement

You will find that some people are simply extra gifted when it comes to saying things in a beautiful way. Here is one example:

"Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them."

The message here is that everyone is beautiful in some way-but it's said in a unique way. This is why quotes are good to use--sometimes a few well-chosen words can say a lot. This is actually a quote from Eeyore (A.A. Milne) in Winnie-the-Poo.

If you use the words of someone else, even if these words come from a story book character, and even if you heard these words in an interview and they were never written down, you must cite your source.

Plagiarizing Facts and Statistics

It's always a good idea to back up a thesis with facts and statistics2.

If you conduct a small survey and come up with your own statistics (seventy percent of the class loves the school cafeteria) you may use your findings freely. However, if you use statistics from another source, you must cite that source.

Plagiarizing Words and Passages

When you conduct your research, your job is to accumulate and synthesize information from several sources and come up with your own conclusion or thesis. You will use the work of others as supporting evidence.

You can weave certain phrases and words into your own work as quotes (with citations) or paraphrase3, but you cannot copy and past entire passages and pass them off as your own work.

Passage from a publication by the Center for Active Student Engagement:

  • Our research shows that nearly eighty percent of first-year college students will communicate with family members by telephone on a daily basis during the first week of classes. For most students, homesickness eases gradually as they make contact with new friends and classmates. The objective of student activity officials is to engage new students in social activities during these critical days, to ease the transition into college life.

  • Plagiarism Example:

    Eighty percent of students who go off to college still communicate with family members by phone for at least a week. This is why student activity employees need to engage new students in activities. It is their job to ease the transition for these students.

  • Acceptable Use of this Source:

    Have you ever noticed that a flurry of fun activities take place on every college campus during the first two weeks of classes? According to sources at the Center for Active Student Engagement, many new college students struggle with homesickness during the first few weeks on campus. Those activities are designed to "ease the transition" into college life (Moncrief 22).

In the acceptable use example, you should notice that the information that is referenced is actually framed in a way that indicates a beginning and end of "legally borrowed" information. The source was introduced as "according to" and the passage ends with the citation.

Remember, there is no good excuse for plagiarizing!