Student Guide to Understanding and Avoiding Plagiarism in the Classroom and Online

Plagiarism is considered one of the cardinal sins in the academic world. In simple terms, it amounts to a form of theft, but one that involves intellectual property rather than money or tangible objects. The idea that simply taking someone else’s words and/or ideas and passing them off as one’s own can be a difficult concept for students to wrap their mind around. It is, however, a serious ethical transgression that can have equally serious ramifications for the person who stands accused of it. Understanding the nuances of proper attribution, and developing strategies for avoiding the various pitfalls that can lead to plagiarism have benefits that extend beyond the classroom, into journalism, politics, popular music and art, scientific research, and any other professional arena in which intellectual property and personal reputation are highly valued assets.

What Is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism happens whenever a person appropriates another person’s published or recorded thoughts, formulations, or wording without attribution. This is true whether it’s in a newspaper article, a political speech, or a college paper. Plagiarism is a form of fraud by misrepresentation. An individual who plagiarizes, wittingly or not, is misleading his or her reader or audience. In addition, plagiarism amounts to cheating, particularly in an academic setting, where a grade or other form of assessment is attached to and may by inflated by the appropriation of unattributed material.

Definitions of Plagiarism

Because it is a violation of trust, academic decorum, and intellectual honesty, plagiarism can be seen as both a specific academic infraction and a symbolic affront to the integrity of the larger academic community. What may at first seem like little more than a carelessly borrowed sentence or phrase to a student who’s been up all night struggling to finish a paper can have far more profound and pernicious implications when viewed from an institutional perspective. The definitions of plagiarism below reflect the seriousness with which plagiarism is viewed in academia:

“In academic writing, it is considered plagiarism to draw any idea or any language from someone else without adequately crediting that source in your paper.” Harvard Guide to Using Sources

“[Plagiarism is] the deliberate or reckless representation of another’s words, thoughts, or ideas as one’s own without attribution in connection with submission of academic work, whether graded or otherwise.” The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill

“Plagiarism is the use of someone else’s ideas or language without acknowledging that they were not created by you. This definition applies to ideas, words and unusual structures regardless of where you find them — in a book, on a webpage, in an email. Whenever you include another person’s information or wording in a document, you must acknowledge the source and include a citation that will tell your readers where you obtained it — otherwise you are guilty of plagiarism.” Writing Center at MIT

See also:
Council of Writing Program Administrators
Modern Language Association Style Manual
American Historical Association

Types of Plagiarism

While plagiarism generally ends up in the same unfortunate place, with a person miscasting someone else’s work as his or her own, it may or may not happen intentionally. Regardless, it is plagiarism, and an institution may not factor intent into if and how it punishes the plagiarizer. Therefore, in order to avoid plagiarism, it is useful to understand how various types of plagiarism are manifest.

Intentional plagiarism

Faculty, administrators, and student boards tasked with adjudicating cases of plagiarism often, but not always, weigh intentionality as a mitigating or aggravating factor in cases of plagiarism. Intentional plagiarism is characterized by a clear attempt to deceive the reader and/or conceal appropriated content, as well as by evidence of planning and premeditation. In its most basic form — word-for-word copying of a source text without attribution — intentional plagiarism can be easy to spot with an Internet search, or a more advanced plagiarism detection software system. And a faculty member who is familiar with a student’s writing may notice the change in tone or style that often accompanies the insertion of appropriated source material. The sin of intentional plagiarism can be compounded by lies and deception deployed after the fact to cover up the offense.

Accidental Plagiarism

This is the grey zone where it isn’t always clear how or why plagiarism has taken place. Some students may not be familiar with the conventions regarding appropriation and attribution. This has become a particular concern for schools with large numbers of international students, who may come from cultures that have different customs regarding intellectual property. In other cases, accidental plagiarism may be the result of sloppiness, laziness, or simple oversight. A student rushing to finish a paper may leave out a crucial footnote, forget to close a quotation, or neglect to include a citation for a hastily paraphrased passage. Unintended plagiarism can also result from a misunderstanding of the common knowledge exemption mentioned below.

Common Knowledge Exemption

Plagiarism applies to ideas and formulations that are unique and distinct and that are considered “original” to a particular author or source. Facts and ideas that are commonly known, such as the capital of North Dakota and the moon’s tidal effect on the Earth, do not require citations and are thus not subject to charges of plagiarism. An author’s assessment of the quality of life in Bismarck, North Dakota, or an analysis of data regarding the moon’s tidal pull, are not common knowledge, and thus require citations. Linguistic idioms and clichés may count as turns of phrase, but they do not require attribution. While different people may have different ideas about what should and should not be considered commonly known, a good rule of thumb is that complex ideas and formulations that incorporate analysis and/or interpretation do not fall under the common knowledge exemption, and thus require proper citation.

For more on the common knowledge exemption, see:
University of Pennsylvania’s Code of Academic Integrity
Princeton University guide to Academic Integrity
California State University San Marcos – Plagiarism Prevention for Students

Paraphrasing vs. Summarizing

Paraphrasing involves rewording or otherwise restating a premise or an idea from a discreet section of a text, an interview, or any other source. When properly deployed, it can create greater clarity and/or improve the overall style and flow of a piece. However, a successful paraphrase involves more than just using a thesaurus to change a few key words, and a paraphrased section still requires proper attribution in order to avoid charges of plagiarism. In contrast, summarizing is a technique for condensing or reducing a longer argument, description, or narrative into a shorter overview or synopsis. Again, to do so without proper attribution risks charges of plagiarism.

For more on paraphrasing and summarizing, see:
University of Southern Mississippi
University College (Toronto)

Patchwork Writing or Patchwriting

Patchwork writing, or patchwriting, is a new name for an old problem: unoriginal writing that relies too heavily on source material, which may or may not be poorly paraphrased and/or improperly cited. According to a 2012 report by the Poynter Institute titled “Patchwriting is More Common than Plagiarism, Just as Dishonest,” patchwriting isn’t always plagiarism, but it is a growing problem that is symptomatic of the cut-and-paste nature of digital technology. Because students have easy access to web pages, PDFs, and other digital sources containing text that can be easily copied and pasted into a document, they are more likely to do so. A paper patched together in this way is not likely to demonstrate critical thinking and original analysis. A paper patched together in this way without citing sources is plagiarism.

Additional Aspects of Plagiarism

It should be further noted that plagiarism policies can and often do regard the following as violations:

  • The appropriation of images, illustrations, charts, equations, and other symbolic and pictorial representations without attribution.
  • The submission of papers and other works created by and/or purchased from an individual or a service.
  • The resubmission of one’s own work from another course without the prior notification of and approval from the instructor.
  • Anything that constitutes copyright infringement, including the unauthorized appropriation, use, and/or duplication of proprietary media content, computer coding, and other intellectual property.

For further information on copyright law, see:
Columbia University Libraries’ Copyright Quick Guide
Stanford University Libraries’ Copyright & Fair Use
US Copyright Office’s Copyright Basics

Plagiarism in Online Education

The growth of online education in recent years has fueled the same concerns about academic integrity that plague traditional, classroom learning. That said, there is little evidence to suggest that plagiarism is more prevalent in an online learning environment. It may, in fact, be easier to detect and prevent plagiarism in online learning because, in contrast to campus-based programs, online courses rely almost exclusively on the electronic submission of all written work.

Once a paper is in electronic form, it is subject to a number of plagiarism detection strategies. Text that has been carelessly cut and pasted from another source may contain formatting that betrays its origins and other embedded cues that raise a red flag. A suspicious section of text can easily be run through a search engine to determine its originality. There are also a number of sophisticated plagiarism detection applications and services that are designed to scan electronic documents for potential plagiarism. Many of these services can be, and are, integrated into existing online learning management systems (LMSs) like Canvas and Blackboard. Plagscan is one such service that is compatible with Blackboard, Moodle, Schoolology, and other LMSs. And, recently, the California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative partnered with VeriCite to incorporate plagiarism detection software into its LMS.

It is true that student identity authentication has eclipsed plagiarism as a top concern among online educators. This issue is being addressed through the use of proctors and/or webcams to verify the identity of students taking exams. But, that has not diminished the seriousness with which plagiarism is viewed in online learning. It may instead reflect a growing confidence in the efficacy of the latest generation of plagiarism detection solutions, which can check student papers against huge databases of published and unpublished works.

On the plus side for students, these plagiarism detection services and applications can be configured and deployed as a kind of risk reduction strategy to avoid unintended or accidental plagiarism. In some cases, the option of running a paper through plagiarism detection software prior to submitting it may be made available to students through the LMS itself. If not, students still have the option of using free resources offered by many of the services detailed in the section below. In practical terms, this gives concerned and conscientious students a fair opportunity to mitigate the risks of accidental plagiarism. It also raises the bar for those students who are intent on plagiarizing in spite of the risks. At some point, the time and effort it takes to find and then effectively disguise plagiarized text begins to outweigh the work that goes into properly citing sources and coming up with original material.

Tools for Detecting Plagiarism

The new generation of plagiarism detection tools and applications are essentially giant search engines. They compare student work to material published online and, in many cases, to proprietary databases of other work that may include additional unpublished academic research and material that is not currently online. These services produce reports that highlight sections of a paper that may require some form of citation. Most have an additional function that reports the percentage of original content in a paper, which can be useful for avoiding patchwriting. And, they may even provide guidance on how to cite sources in keeping with common academic styles like MLA, Chicago, and APA.

It is important to note that none of these services claims to be 100% foolproof, and that their main benefit is in highlighting those portions of a paper that require further scrutiny for attribution purposes. A spellchecker identifies misspellings, but it does not weigh meaning or indicate whether the word itself is the right choice. A grammar checker evaluates usage and sentence construction, but it can’t correct a logical fallacy, a flawed argument, or an incoherent statement. Similarly, plagiarism detection services are very good at identifying content that should be cited, but they aren’t designed to improve the quality of the research or of the writing itself.

The following list includes some of the more popular plagiarism prevention and detection services currently available:

Copyscape is a service designed to help online publishers and websites avoid plagiarism and copyright infringement, and protect themselves against content theft and copyright violations. It also provides a free plagiarism detection function that looks for similar content on other websites. Copyscape Premium and Copysentry are paid services that monitor online content for potential copyright infringements.

Grammarly is a multifaceted tool for writers, which includes a grammar checker, a thesaurus, and a function that identifies instances of potential plagiarism. It can also generate citations in MLA, APA, and Chicago formats. Grammarly offers a free extension for Safari and Chrome browsers, as well as a paid premium service.

iThenticate is a plagiarism detection service designed to assist editors and academic researchers and writers in assuring that sources have been properly cited and that original content is indeed original. It also offers a premium service, Crossref Similarity Check, in partnership with the publisher association Crossref.

Plagium is a straightforward plagiarism checking and detection service that will provide a free search, but that charges 4¢ per page for a Quick Check, and 8¢ per page for a Deep Search. Plagium also offers institutional accounts for schools and businesses, and API service for websites.

Plagscan is a browser-based web service for plagiarism prevention and detection that allows users to upload documents in most digital formats. It then checks the document for similarities with other published material and generates a report based on those findings.

Turnitin is an online service that schools subscribe to in order to prevent and detect plagiarism. It has several functionalities, including the interactive grading platform Turnitin Feedback Studio; Revision Assistant, which allows teachers to provide guidance on drafts and revisions and is available as a Google Docs add-on; and a Scoring Engine that allows a student to submit a paper and receive an approximated grade based on an algorithmic assessment. Turnitin’s primary application is plagiarism detection and prevention. This service assesses the originality of content, and identifies sections that may need citation. It can be used by students to ensure they haven’t forgotten to cite sources, and by teachers to identify instances of potential plagiarism.

WriteCheck is another plagiarism service created by Turnitin specifically for students. It checks grammar and identifies content that may need citation, and is designed to be used before assignments are submitted for a final grade.

Examples of Plagiarism

Plagiarism may be a complicated issue, but it’s often easy to spot. And it’s just as easy to avoid, if you know what to look for. Using a section of text from OnlineEducation.com’s Guide to Careers in Cybersecurity, Information Assurance and Digital Forensics, here is an example of how a source can be properly identified.

Sample Text

Computing power has become easier to access, progressively more complex, and increasingly difficult to secure. In response, cybersecurity and its related specializations — information assurance (IA), information governance (IG), and digital forensics — have risen in prominence. Cybersecurity is now a broadly trending news topic, an in-demand job description, and a pressing business imperative that requires dedicated teams of professionals and often an enterprise-wide security charter. High profile breaches like the hacks that targeted Target customer data in 2013, compromised Sony’s email servers in 2014, and penetrated the records of the healthcare insurance provider Anthem in 2015, have served to put a degree of exclamation on this point.

Example of word-for-word plagiarism with minor substitutions
The proliferation of digital technology has brought with it many benefits and conveniences, including the ability to access vast caches of knowledge and information from anywhere in the world. It has also created new risks and dangers. As computing power has become easier to access, digital systems have gotten progressively more complex and difficult to secure. In response, cybersecurity has risen in prominence, as a broadly trending news topic, an in-demand job description, and a pressing business imperative that requires the attention of dedicated teams of professionals. High-profile hacks of Target in 2013, Sony in 2014, and Anthem in 2015 have served to put a degree of exclamation on this point.

Why this constitutes plagiarism
The italicized excerpts in the above example are taken directly from the source without attribution. They are presented as the writer’s own words and ideas. Some of the wording has been changed, and the sentences aren’t reproduced in exact order, but the bulk of the paragraph is pieced together from quotes taken from the source with no citation. A good plagiarism detection program would likely flag this section.

How to fix it
Cite the source of the quotations, and use quotation marks around text that comes directly from the original source, as in the following example: The proliferation of digital technology and has brought with it many benefits and conveniences, including the ability to access vast caches of knowledge and information from anywhere in the world. It has also created new risks and dangers. In OnlineEducation.com’s “Guide to Careers in Cybersecurity, Information Assurance and Digital Forensics,” this is directly addressed. The guide points out that, “As computing power has become easier to access,” digital systems have grown “progressively more complex and increasingly difficult to secure.” It goes on to say: “In response, cybesecurity and its related specializations — information assurance (IA), information governance (IG), and digital forensics — have risen in prominence. Cybersecurity is now a broadly trending news topic, an in-demand job description, and a pressing business imperative.” High-profile hacks of Target in 2013, Sony in 2014, and Anthem in 2015, according to OnlineEducation.com, “served to put a degree of exclamation on this point.”

Example of paraphrasing without attribution
The proliferation of digital technology has brought with it many benefits and conveniences, including the ability to access vast caches of knowledge and information from anywhere in the world. It has also created new risks and dangers. The complexity of modern computer systems, along with the ease with which they can be accessed, has made securing these systems a major challenge. In addition to generating headlines, the recent cyber attacks on Target, Sony, and Anthem have helped elevate cybersecurity as a pressing concern if not a priority in the business world.

Why this may constitute plagiarism
Elements of the source text have been paraphrased in such a way that it may not be readily apparent to a reader or easily targeted by plagiarism detection software. However, the ideas represented are not necessarily common knowledge, and they represent a kind of analysis, so attribution in the form of a footnote, a parenthetical, or a direct citation is the best way to avoid charges of plagiarism.

How to fix it
A simple attribution that acknowledges the source, either parenthetically, or in the paragraph itself, makes it clear to the reader that a source has been used: The proliferation of digital technology has brought with it many benefits and conveniences, including the ability to access vast caches of knowledge and information from anywhere in the world. It has also created new risks and dangers. This point is emphasized in OnlineEducation.com’s “Guide to Careers in Cybersecurity, Information Assurance and Digital Forensics,” which suggests that the complexity of modern computer systems, along with the ease with which they can be accessed, has made securing these systems a major challenge. In addition to generating headlines, the cyber attacks on Target, Sony, and Anthem in recent years have helped elevate cybersecurity as a pressing concern if not a priority in the business world.

For more plagiarism examples, see:
Princeton University’s Academic Integrity Guide
Georgetown University Honor Council – Examples of Plagiarism
School of Education at Indiana University Bloomington – How to Recognize Plagiarism
School of Education at Indiana University Bloomington – Patterns of Plagiarism
The Poynter Institute’s report on patchwriting
Bowdoin College Office of the Dean of Student Affairs – What is Plagiarism?
Bowdoin College Office of the Dean of Student Affairs – Examples of Direct Plagiarism
Bowdoin College Office of the Dean of Student Affairs – Examples of Mosaic Plagiarism

Penalties for Plagiarism

Plagiarism policies vary from school to school. Individual departments and faculty members may have their own tailored approaches to combating plagiarism. Penalties can range from receiving an F, or no credit, on an assignment in which plagiarism is present, to suspension or expulsion from the school for one or more instances of proven plagiarism. Sanctions are often situational. Was the plagiarism intentional or accidental? Were there attempts to cover up the act, or has the student taken responsibility for the incident? Is it a first offense or is it part of a pattern of behavior? These factors may be considered by the administrator, academic council, or judiciary board charged with hearing and adjudicating plagiarism cases.

As a general rule, ignorance is not considered a defense or a justification for plagiarism. Students are expected to understand the nature of plagiarism and its potential penalties. Most colleges and universities include a section on plagiarism in an official student handbook or an honor code, which should also detail the consequences of plagiarism. If not, students should consult with an advisor or an administrator. Finally, many faculty members include a plagiarism policy note on syllabi to ensure students are aware of its perils.

It is important to realize that plagiarism is technically not subject to criminal or civil law and prosecution: it is an ethical violation subject to institutional review and sanctioning. A person found guilty of intentional plagiarism has effectively been branded a liar and a cheat. This can have social ramifications in addition to serious academic penalties. But, unless the incident of plagiarism violates copyright and property laws, which is rare, there is no legal recourse. In an academic setting, the punishment can be as severe as expulsion, but it will be academic in nature. In the professional world, plagiarism is treated in a similar fashion. It may not be illegal, but it can be cause for suspension or dismissal and have other severe professional consequences.

How to Avoid Plagiarism

The simplest way to avoid plagiarism is to maintain a rigorous distinction between one’s own ideas and those that have been taken from an external source. That may be easier said than done. Students attending college for the first time are entering a new academic environment, one that may not align with their experiences in high school. For example, in a high school class, it’s not uncommon for students to all be reading and citing from the same text, which can obviate the need for attribution. High school students may also be asked to summarize chapters and essays in a way that may not require rigorous citation.

Expectations are different in college. In addition to textbook readings, students are asked to do their own research, and they are expected to cite those additional sources in their writing. Summarizing is a skill that can be used in academic writing, but it is generally not the primary purpose of an academic work, and it always requires an appropriate citation.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that millennials and so-called “digital natives” are more accustomed than their predecessors to appropriating online content, posting and re-posting that content on social media sites, and seeing other content aggregated and repurposed without clear attribution. This may contribute to a misunderstanding of the seriousness of plagiarism. But, understanding the essential nature of plagiarism, as a form of fraud, misrepresentation, and intellectual dishonesty, is crucial to avoiding it. This requires a commitment to transparency, because the best way to stay clear of plagiarism charges is to be utterly up front about all source material, and to provide a clear indication whenever words and ideas from those sources are used. This takes a certain amount of vigilance, and it may require an organized strategy, like the one detailed below:

  • Consult the school’s academic handbook for an institutional definition of what constitutes plagiarism.
  • Familiarize yourself with and use an approved style for citing sources, like MLA, APA, and the Chicago Manual of Style.
  • Maintain a running list of sources consulted for every graded assignment, and be prepared to use this as a works cited list as a potential safeguard against plagiarism charges.
  • Use quotation marks around any piece of text taken directly from a source, even if just for note-taking purposes.
  • Include a URL link in your notes to any text, chart, table, or other piece of information taken from a website or online source.
  • Use two or more different fonts in your notes to distinguish your own writing and ideas from text taken directly from another source.
  • Don’t wait until the final draft to cite sources. Begin doing so in your notes and in your initial draft of an assignment.
  • Run your paper through one of the plagiarism detection applications available to students, and make the necessary corrections.
  • When in doubt, cite, even if you’re not sure of the proper formatting style. Losing style points is almost always preferable to the more severe penalties attached to a charge of plagiarism.

Plagiarism Resources and Safe Practices for Students

The following links offer further guidance for students who want to learn more about plagiarism and how to avoid it. These resources may also be helpful to faculty and administrators.

The Harvard College Writing Program’s Guide to Using Sources: “What Constitutes Plagiarism?”

Purdue Owl Online Writing Lab: “Safe Practices (for students)”

The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill: “Plagiarism”

The Writing Center at MIT: “Avoiding Plagiarism”

The Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s Writer’s Handbook: “How to Avoid Plagiarism”

WriteCheck: “6 Ways to Avoid Plagiarism in Research Papers”

Plagiarism Resources and Best Practices for Faculty

The following links offer further guidance for faculty on teaching plagiarism, and the detection and prevention of plagiarism.

Purdue Owl Online Writing Lab: “Best Practices for Teachers”

Council of Writing Program Administrators: “Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices”

American Historical Association: “Plagiarism Curricular Materials for History Instructors”

US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Research Integrity: “26 Guidelines at a Glance on Avoiding Plagiarism”

National Council of Teachers of English: “Issue Brief: Plagiarism”

National Council of Teachers of English: Teaching About Plagiarism in a Digital Age

The following links offer specific information on plagiarism prevention strategies.

“How to Prevent Plagiarism” from Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center

“Resources for Teachers: How to Prevent Plagiarism” from the Comparative Media Studies Department at MIT

“Teaching Tips: Understanding and Preventing Plagiarism” from the American Association for Psychological Science

Plagiarism Resources and Best Practices in Online Education

The articles and reports linked to below offer more details about how plagiarism is being dealt with in the realm of online education.

“Plagiarism By Adult Learners Online: A Case Study in Detection and Remediation,” by Christine Jocoy and David DiBiase, The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, June 2016

“Cheating in Online Classes is Now Big Business,” by Derek Newton, The Atlantic, November 4, 2015

“Does the Online Environment Promote Plagiarism?: A Comparative Study of Dissertations from Brick-and-Mortar versus Online Institutions,” by David C. Ison, MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, June 2014

“Institutional Responses to Plagiarism in Online Classes: Policy, Prevention, and Detection,” by Merrily Stover and Kim Kelly, 18th Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning, University of Wisconsin-Extension, 2005

“Ensuring Academic Integrity in Distance Education with Online Proctoring,” by Franklin Hayes and Vincent Termini, Educes Review, November 4, 2013

Plagiarism in the News

The following links are to recent research and news stories about plagiarism that may be useful to students and teachers who are interested in learning more about how the issue is being handled in academia.

“The Impact of Digital Tools On Student Writing and How Writing is Taught in Schools,” Pew Research Center and the National Writing Project, July 16, 2013

“Everybody’s Talking About Plagiarism: What is it, Exactly?,” by Fernando Zamudio-Suaréz, The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 19, 2016

“A Plague of Plagiarism,” by Allan Metcalf, The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 16, 2016

“Journalism Has a Plagiarism Problem. But it’s Not the One You’d Expect,” by David Uberti, Columbia Journalism Review, November 18, 2014

About the Author : Matt Ashare is a writer with 25 years of experience in publishing. He was an editor at the Boston Phoenix and a contributor to other publications, including Rolling Stone, Spin, and the Village Voice. He now teaches journalism at Randolph College, and occasionally writes a column for the Central Virginia weekly The Burg.