Plagiarism: What It is and How to Recognize and Avoid It

What is Plagiarism and Why is it Important?

In college courses, we are continually engaged with other people’s ideas: we read them in texts, hear them in lecture, discuss them in class, and incorporate them into our own writing. As a result, it is very important that we give credit where it is due. Plagiarism is using others’ ideas and words without clearly acknowledging the source of that information.

Plagiarism:  The use of the words, thoughts, or ideas of another person, whether intentional, unintentional, or accidental, without proper attribution or citation, as if there were one's own.

In order to understand plagiarism, it helps to understand the process of sharing and creating ideas in the university. All knowledge is built from previous knowledge. As we read, study, perform experiments, and gather perspectives, we are drawing on other people’s ideas. Building on their ideas and experiences, we create our own. When you put your ideas on paper, your instructors want to distinguish between the building block ideas borrowed from other people and your own newly reasoned perspectives or conclusions. You make these distinctions in a written paper by citing the sources for your building block ideas. Providing appropriate citations will also help readers who are interested in your topic find additional, related material to read—in this way, they will be able to build on the work you have done to find sources.

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:

How Can Students Avoid Plagiarism?

To avoid plagiarism, you must give credit whenever you use

To help you recognize what plagiarism looks like and what strategies you can use to avoid it, here are some examples of plagiarism with explanations of why these are examples of plagiaism and a few definitions that may be helpful.


Recognizing Unacceptable and Acceptable Paraphrases

Paraphrasing means taking another person’s ideas and putting those ideas in your own words. Paraphrasing does NOT mean changing a word or two in someone else’s sentence, changing the sentence structure while maintaining the original words, or changing a few words to synonyms. If you are tempted to rearrange a sentence in any of these ways, you are writing too close to the original. That’s plagiarizing, not paraphrasing.

Here is an ORIGINAL text, from page 1 of Lizzie Borden: A Case Book of Family and Crime in the 1890s by Joyce Williams et al.:

The rise of industry, the growth of cities, and the expansion of the population were the three great developments of late nineteenth century American history. As new, larger, steam-powered factories became a feature of the American landscape in the East, they transformed farm hands into industrial laborers, and provided jobs for a rising tide of immigrants. With industry came urbanization the growth of large cities (like Fall River, Massachusetts, where the Bordens lived) which became the centers of production as well as of commerce and trade.

Here’s an UNACCEPTABLE paraphrase that is plagiarism:

The increase of industry, the growth of cities, and the explosion of the population were three large factors of nineteenth century America. As steam-driven companies became more visible in the eastern part of the country, they changed farm hands into factory workers and provided jobs for the large wave of immigrants. With industry came the growth of large cities like Fall River where the Bordens lived which turned into centers of commerce and trade as well as production.

What makes this passage plagiarism?

The preceding passage is considered plagiarism for two reasons:

If you do either or both of these things, you are plagiarizing.

Here’s an ACCEPTABLE paraphrase:

Fall River, where the Borden family lived, was typical of northeastern industrial cities of the nineteenth century. Steam-powered production had shifted labor from agriculture to manufacturing, and as immigrants arrived in the US, they found work in these new factories. As a result, populations grew, and large urban areas arose. Fall River was one of these manufacturing and commercial centers (Williams 1).

Why is this passage acceptable?

This is acceptable paraphrasing because the writer:

Here’s an example of quotation and paraphrase used together, which is also ACCEPTABLE:

Fall River, where the Borden family lived, was typical of northeastern industrial cities of the nineteenth century. As steam-powered production shifted labor from agriculture to manufacturing, the demand for workers "transformed farm hands into industrial laborers," and created jobs for immigrants. In turn, growing populations increased the size of urban areas. Fall River was one of these hubs "which became the centers of production as well as of commerce and trade" (Williams 1).

Why is this passage acceptable?

This is acceptable paraphrasing because the writer:

Note that if the writer had used these phrases or sentences in her own paper without putting quotation marks around them, she would be PLAGIARIZING. Using another person’s phrases or sentences without putting quotation marks around them is considered plagiarism EVEN IF THE WRITER CITES IN HER OWN TEXT THE SOURCE OF THE PHRASES OR SENTENCES SHE HAS QUOTED.

Plagiarism and the World Wide Web

The World Wide Web has become a more popular source of information for student papers, and many questions have arisen about how to avoid plagiarizing these sources. In most cases, the same rules apply as to a printed source: when a writer must refer to ideas or quote from a WWW site, she must cite that source.

If a writer wants to use visual information from a WWW site, many of the same rules apply. Copying visual information or graphics from a WWW site (or from a printed source) is very similar to quoting information, and the source of the visual information or graphic must be cited. These rules also apply to other uses of textual or visual information from WWW sites; for example, if a student is constructing a web page as a class project, and copies graphics or visual information from other sites, she must also provide information about the source of this information. In this case, it might be a good idea to obtain permission from the WWW site’s owner before using the graphics.

Strategies for Avoiding Plagiarism

1. Put in quotations everything that comes directly from the text especially when taking notes.

2. Paraphrase, but be sure you are not just rearranging or replacing a few words.

Instead, read over what you want to paraphrase carefully; cover up the text with your hand, or close the text so you can’t see any of it (and so aren’t tempted to use the text as a “guide”). Write out the idea in your own words without peeking.

3. Check your paraphrase against the original text to be sure you have not accidentally used the same phrases or words, and that the information is accurate.

Terms You Need to Know (or What is Common Knowledge?)

In every professional field, experts consider some ideas “common knowledge,” but remember that you’re not a professional (yet). In fact, you’re just learning about those concepts in the course you’re taking, so the material you are reading may not yet be “common knowledge” to you. In order to decide if the material you want to use in your paper constitutes “common knowledge,” you may find it helpful to ask yourself the following questions:

If you answer “no” to either or both of these questions, then the information is not “common knowledge” to you. In these cases, you need to cite your source(s) and indicate where you first learned this bit of what may be “common knowledge” in the field.

Common knowledge: facts that can be found in numerous places and are likely to be known by a lot of people.

Example: John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States in 1960.

This is generally known information. You do not need to document this fact.

However, you must document facts that are not generally known and ideas that interpret facts.

Example: According to the American Family Leave Coalition’s new book, Family Issues and Congress, President Bush’s relationship with Congress has hindered family leave legislation (6).

The idea that “Bush’s relationship with Congress has hindered family leave legislation” is not a fact but an interpretation; consequently, you need to cite your source.

Quotation: using someone’s words. When you quote, place the passage you are using in quotation marks, and document the source according to a standard documentation style.

The following example uses the Modern Language Association’s style:

Example: According to Peter S. Pritchard in USA Today, “Public schools need reform but they’re irreplaceable in teaching all the nation’s young” (14).

Paraphrase: using someone’s ideas, but putting them in your own words. This is probably the skill you will use most when incorporating sources into your writing. Although you use your own words to paraphrase, you must still acknowledge the source of the information.

How can I tell whether I’ve plagiarized?

If you’ve followed the above guidelines but still aren’t sure whether you’ve plagiarized, you can double-check your work using the checklist below.

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.

**The moral of thhe story: When in doubt, give a citation**