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What is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is “old news” rather than some new innovation developed by today’s students. However, evidence indicates that the plague of plagiarism is widening in scope and increasing in number of cases. Straw (2002) cites a 1997 study in which 97% of the high school students surveyed reported having cheated or plagiarized at least one time in their academic careers. She also cites a recent college study reporting a 744% increase in cheating on their campus over a brief 4-year period. Admittedly, such statistics include other cheating behaviors in addition to plagiarism. However, the greatest increases in academic dishonesty seem related to plagiarism specifically. According to Mahon (2002), “[a]cademics and teachers of all types seem to be totally bumming about all the kids who (allegedly) ain’t writing their own stuff” (p. 4).

Why the increase in plagiarism? We see several theories in the literature. Some authors suggest that recent advances in technology renders this “most slippery and discomfiting of literary crimes” (Fitzgerald, 2002, p. 16) more readily committed, as students use the Internet and the handy “cut-and-paste” capabilities of word processing to generate essays, book reports, and term papers filled with the uncredited musings and findings of others. Straw (2002) cites statistics from a study conducted by Donald L. McCabe of Rutgers University regarding anonymous self-reports from students at 21 colleges and universities with regard to their academic integrity. The numbers most relevant to the current paper are these: some 15% of students reported having accessed a paper from online sources, which they subsequently submitted as their own work; approximately 51% reported that they have taken passages from a website without proper citation. Comparisons of these proportions with those of past student populations without such easy access to the work of others seem to suggest that plagiarism is “on the grow” at last in part due to the new technology. Straw suggests that some students seem to have “a sense of entitlement” to online information, since it may further blur the already somewhat vague definition of common knowledge.

Straw (2002) also suggests that today’s students face different – and greater – stressors that did previous generations. She “confesses” that her college experience was simpler in some ways that the lives of current students. She did not work, as do the majority of today’s students. And she was of a different age with respect to other demands on time and energy. “Most people have little free time these days,” she opines. “Our lives are too complex; we have too many demands and not enough time for what matters most … So people take short cuts” (p. 5). Straw is attempting to explain the increase in cheating rather than excuse it, and she refers to the current population of college students as the “Why not?” generation (p. 4).

Some educators and other authors entertain the possibility that much of the plagiarism currently in evidence derives from honest ignorance of the moral necessity and/or the correct format required to give credit to original authors (Whiteneck, 2002; Fitzgerald, 2002; Burnett, 2002). For example, Whiteneck (2002) recognizes the “somewhat foggy understanding among some students of what intellectual property is” (p. 6). For the most part, educators with this view promote proactive approaches that educate students regarding the several definitions of plagiarism and other relevant terms, as well as acceptable citation styles. As Burnett (2002) expresses it, “educators seem to agree that the best policy it prevent plagiarism rather than policing it” (p. 7).

For current purposes, we will assume that fewer students would commit crimes of plagiarism if information regarding the nature of the beast and associated pitfalls were made available. Thus, plagiarism will be defined and discussed in the following sections, as will appropriate approaches to citation and paraphrasing.

Defining Plagiarism

Definitions of plagiarism abound in the literature. Some attempts to characterize the phenomenon are expressed simply. One online source states that “[p]lagiarism is using others’ ideas and words without clearly acknowledge the source of that information” (“Avoiding Plagiarism”). Janowski (2002) offers a more operational definition by listing the following behaviors that he feels constitute plagiarism:

  • Buying or downloading a paper from a research service or a term-paper mill and offering it as your own.
  • Turning in another student’s work, with or without that student’s knowledge, as your own.
  • Copying any portion of another’s work without proper acknowledgment.
  • Copying material from a source and supplying proper documentation, but leaving out quotations marks or failing to indent properly.
  • Paraphrasing ideas and language from a source without proper documentation. (p. 26)

Janowski’s list of plagiaristic activities contributes significantly to our progress toward operationalizing the definition. Though the list offered by Janowski (2002) may seem unnecessarily detailed, students need these specifics if the conscientious among them are to avoid plagiarism successfully. With these caveats in mind, we will now address when to use others’ materials and how to indicate that we have done so.

Use of Quatations

The overuse of quotations is to be avoided at all cost. Yet the reader is undoubtedly aware that, thus far, a considerable amount of material from outside sources has been quoted. Under certain circumstances, such direct quotations are not only permissible but indicated.

One online source suggests that a writer should quote another’s material when “the wording of the original is memorable or vivid and you can’t re-write it to sound any better” (“Paraphrase: Restating Ideas”). Additionally, according to this source, one might chose to quote an authority in a particular field in order to add credibility to one’s own statements regarding some phenomenon related to that field. Finally, quotations provide a relatively simple way of emphasizing the opinions or philosophy of the cited author.

Generally speaking, writers will want to avoid quotations that offer little uniqueness of phrase or perspective. Additionally, material that is overly technical or otherwise incomprehensible to the anticipated audience should be rendered more “accessible” through paraphrase (“Paraphrase: Restating Ideas”). Some writers quote especially difficult material because they themselves do not fully understand it. The obvious guideline in such a case is that one should not use information without some understanding of it.

Regardless of when or why other authors are quoted, it is imperative that the source of the information be acknowledged. In the case of brief quotations, the words lifted directed from another’s work must be enclosed in quotation marks. Longer passages cited are indented without quotation marks in most citation styles, including MLA and APA. Pages numbers from the original source are included to indicate specifically from whence the borrowed words came. When online sources are quoted, one must provide sufficient data within the text to lead the reader to the URL for the site, which is included in the information about sources that follows the text.

Paraphrases and Borrowed Ideas

According to one online source, a paraphrase may be defined as a “thorough restatement of the original text in your own words” (“Paraphrasing: Restating). The material, the thoughts, the work belong to another, whom one is obliged to acknowledge. The particular “turn of phrase” now used to express those thoughts, however, belong to the “new” author – the individual who cites the original source.
Maas (2002) suggests that writers use lead-in phrases to alert the reader that a paraphrase of another’s thoughts will follow. “According to Pierce,” “One source suggests,” and “As reported in the New York Times,” are examples of such lead-in phrases, though additional information about the source should be provided as well according to the particular style being followed. Developing this habit may serve as a reminder that paraphrases must be acknowledged and documented.

Guidelines for appropriate paraphrasing are actually more complex than those associated with direct quotations. The idea of expressing thoughts in one’s own words lends itself to multiple interpretations. Even well-meaning students and other writers may soothe their respective consciences by changing a word here and there before neglecting to use quotation marks or appropriate indentation. The wording of the paraphrase must be substantively different from the original text. If it is not, plagiarism is the result, regardless of the intent of the writer. Maas (2002) provides considerable detail with regard to specific manipulations of material the writer should avoid.

[P]partial or a la carte plagiarism consists of simply changing the tense or the voice of the sentence, substitution past tense verbs for present tense verbs, passive for active voice, removing an occasional adjective, making the manuscript appear somewhat ‘different’ from the original, or simply substituting synonyms without really understanding the sense of the passage. (p. 197)

Maas suggests that good paraphrasing “takes a great deal of cerebral energy” (p. 198), and Uemilianin (2002) concurs that understanding is essential to the legitimate paraphrase.

To a great extent, the information above regarding acknowledgment and citation of borrowed ideas applies to reference materials as well as works by individual authors. In both cases, the reader should be provided sufficient information to locate the original source of the material. Reference material references resemble book references, specifically, in that the publisher or holder of the copyright is required as part of the data provided readers.

Such reference materials typically draw from other scholarly works extensively. One would not expect the author of an encyclopedia article, for example, to draw exclusively from her or his own experiences or knowledge. Thus, secondary sources are often involved in such cases. Writers should identify secondary sources as such, giving the reader sufficient information to identify the original “thinker” or writer.
According to the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2001), inclusion of another author’s tables, maps, and the like in one’s own work requires an additional step. Permission must be obtained from the holder of the copyright before such borrowed data is used in whole or part, “as is” or after adaptation. If the material in question is found in a publication for which the American Psychological Association hold the copyright, “[i]t is not necessary to obtain permission from APA to reproduce one table (or figure) provided you obtain the author’s permission and give full credit to APA as copyright holder and to the author through a complete and accurate citation” (p. 174). Whenever a writer is in doubt regarding whether permission from a copyright holder is necessary, she or he should err on the side of caution by requesting permission from the appropriate person or entity.

Common Knowledge

Determination of whether a specific fact or other datum requires documentation of some sort is not always an easy task. According to one online source, common knowledge includes “[f]acts that can be found in many places and are likely to be known by a lot of people” (“Avoiding plagiarism”). A definition such as this one, however, may not offer sufficient guidance for writers, however. According to Straw (2002), issues related to common knowledge are especially confusing to young or inexperienced writers.

Another site offers a more detailed description of common knowledge delineates specific data that require no acknowlegment or citation information. “(B)irth and death dates of well-known figures, generally accepted dates of military, political, literary, and other historical events” and any other “factual information contained in multiple standard reference works” may generally be used without citation (“Quoting and Paraphrasing”). If the actual wording of a particular source is used, of course, rules for direct quotations apply in all cases.

Even with these guidelines, an author may be undecided regarding whether a particular datum can be considered common knowledge. In these ambiguous cases, the writer is wise to cite the source rather than risk accusations of plagiarism.


American Psychological Association. (2001). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association. Washington, DC:

Avoiding plagiarism. (2002). Curry College. 17 Apr 2002. <http://www.curry.edu/academic/library/tutorial/plagirism.html>

Burnett, S. (2002, July 8). Dishonor & distrust. Community College Week, 14(24), 6-8.

Fitzgerald, M. (2002). A plague of plagiarism. Writer, 115(7), 16-18.

Janowski, A. (2002, September/October). Plagiarism: Prevention, not prosecution. The Book Report, 26, 28.

Maas, D. F. (2002). Make your paraphrasing plagiarism proof with a coat of E-PRIME. ETC: A Review of General Semantics,
59(2), 196-205.

Mahon, R. L. (2002). Got plagiarism? Try the guillotine. Community College Week, 15(9), 4-5.

Paraphrase: Restating ideas in your own words. (2000). ASU: The Writing Center. 27 Mar 2000. http://www.asu.edu/duas/wcenter/paraphrasing.html

Quoting and paraphrasing: What must be documented. (2003). Writer’s Handbook.

Straw, D. (2002, July 8). The plagiarism of Generation “Why not?” Community College Week, 14(24), 4-6.

Uemlianin, I. A. (2002). Engaging text: Assessing paraphrase and understanding. Studies in Higher Education, 25(3), 347-358.