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Plagiarism: What You Should Know 
by Devrie Paradowski July 05, 2005

The Internet has created a vast expanse of informational resources as well as ways to publish your own information. It is easy to accidentally plagiarize something, when the information is as easily accessible as it is to publish. Even if you plagiarize something innocently, you can be held accountable.

What is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is the act of using someone else's ideas or words without properly crediting the source. Take note that plagiarism is not only the act of thieving words or passages, but it is also the act of thieving ideas.

What is not Considered Plagiarism?

  • Your ideas in your own words.
  • Common facts that you have written in your own words. For example, "Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein shortly after the war of 1812."
  • You give proper citations, quotations, and credit to the original source.

Examples of Plagiarism

Copying something word for word without using quotations or citations

  • Be careful when using paraphrased text because you could also find yourself in trouble for libel if your punctuation makes it appear that something you are saying in your document is what the quoted person is saying.

For example, note the following passage:

In an interview with Dr. Moogleham, director of endocrinology at Mountain Smart University, he said smoking is not only dangerous because of the potential risk of cancer, but because it disrupts the metabolic system. Smoking has a large effect on aerobic respiration. Smoking is not only a health risk, but it is morally unacceptable.

Notice that the previous passage could be interpreted to mean that Dr. Moogleham said that smoking is morally unacceptable. In the previous passage, it is unclear exactly what Dr. Moogleham is saying and what the author is saying. Was it the author's idea to say that "Smoking has a large effect on aerobic respiration?" So, not only is this author at risk for being sued for libel, but the author could be held accountable for plagiarizing an idea.

You must make sure to make adequate references to sources inside the document. Using quotation marks or parenthetical documentation will clarify the reader's understanding of whose idea or words are being spoken in the document. Simply citing the source at the end of the document is not acceptable.

Restating an idea as your own idea in your own words

Be careful not to confuse this example of plagiarism with paraphrasing ideas in order to support your own. An example of plagiarizing an idea would be to read a persuasive essay that argues an interesting perspective and then to rewrite that article. Take the following passage as an example:


Many people believe that the moral attitude of the United States has been declining since the enlightenment era. This idea is not true. Though the proliferation of media sources seems to portray a culture of increasingly more sex and violence, it is also evident that because of the proliferation of media, these attributes of our society are being exposed much more than they were in the past. Furthermore, our country has been evolving in a way that upholds the civil liberties of our nation allowing more controversial content in the media. This liberal exposure of the media is an example of our continuing effort to uphold the ideal of equality. In the past, minorities and women did not have the right to vote, or even express themselves freely. In essence, this upholding of civil liberties for everyone shows an incredible increase in moral attitude of our nation.

Plagiarized version

Despite the fact that many people believe that contemporary society has poor moral values in comparison to the past, our moral values have actually become evolved. In the past, media sources were scarce, but now, with the proliferation of various media sources, we are actually exposing more of the negative attributes of our society then we were able to in the past. Consider too, the fact that in the past, women and minorities did not have the same rights as the wealthy white male. This observation goes to prove that because we are now evolving our ideal of equality, that our society has actually become more morally advanced than it was in the past.

Both versions expose the very same idea. Just because the second version was written in the author's own words does not mean that the passage has not been plagiarized. This is the most commonly made error of plagiarism.

Submitting a work for publication or for school, when someone else wrote it

It might seem like common sense that submitting someone else's work would be considered plagiarism, but understand that even if the original author gave you permission to use his or her work, it is considered plagiarism. Say, for example, a student suddenly becomes overly burdened with certain situations. He or she may decide to pay someone to write that term-paper that's been sitting on the back burner. Even if the student provides resource materials and ideas for the author, he or she would be held accountable for plagiarism if the instructor found out about it.

Using charts or graphics without the proper footnotes

You can create your own graphics and charts, but be sure to footnote where you got the statistics. In the case of using actual charts that you find in reference materials, be sure to give the proper credit under the chart, not just in the "works cited" page.

Consequences of Plagiarism

The biggest consequence of plagiarism really befalls the original author. When someone spends a lot of time working on an idea and formulating a way to communicate that idea, it is greatly disturbing to have someone else taking credit for it.

If you are a student who plagiarizes something, you are really wasting time and money. By not doing your own work, you are not going to be any better educated than someone who does not have a college degree. If you don't think anyone will notice, you're wrong. According to an article entitled, "What Do Employers Really Want? Top Skills and Values Employers Seek from Job-Seekers," by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D. and Katharine Hansen on the Quintessential Careers website, the ability to communicate effectively (writing, listening, verbal) was, "by far, the one skill mentioned most often by employers."

Many universities have very strict policies regarding plagiarism. A student who plagiarizes could face expulsion, re-payment of financial aid, and of course, a failing grade.

Some Basic Information on Copyright

Understanding what constitutes plagiarism should include a general understanding of copyright.

What is Copyright?

A copyright is simply a term that describes who has the right to make copies of a certain document. It applies to anything that was created in some tangible form. Take note that plagiarism can in fact occur over an idea. You can plagiarize an idea, whether it is written or spoken. Copyright, however, only applies to actual documents, such as written documents, tapes, CD's, clothing, or anything that can be looked at or held.

Facts, as with plagiarism, are free to public use. For example, "Six plus six equals twelve," cannot be copyrighted because it is not a creative expression; it is common knowledge.

Keep in mind that any creative work, from the moment it is created, is technically copyrighted. The moment you write a poem, your poem is copyrighted, though you can choose to apply for a standard copyright. It is important to consider this fact, because any time you see something that is written, whether it be on a t-shirt, in a book, a post-it note, or on the Internet, it is technically copyrighted. If you were to duplicate that work, i.e. make a copy of it, you are engaging in copyright infringement unless you have the permission, i.e. the right to do so from the original copyright holder.

The Internet and Copyright

Remember that copyright laws apply to the Internet. If you are going to post an article on your website, even if you properly document and cite the reference, you can be held accountable for copyright infringement. Many authors are paid for their articles to be published. People usually pay the author for a copyright. When you post an article, graphic, or otherwise on your site, you are doing so freely and at the expense of the author who would normally be paid to have that work published on someone's website. In short, if you come across an article that does not specifically give permission to be reprinted for free, contact the author and ask for permission to use the article before posting it anywhere else.

Fair Use and Copyright

The idea of fair use is complicated and, at best, vague. In general, the 'fair use' clause of copyright law was added so that people can use small portions of copyrighted material for commentary, education, and criticism. Please note that fair use does not mean you can post copyrighted materials as long as you are not making some kind of profit from them. That commonly held notion is false. Also note, that in commentary, education, and criticism, the entire document is usually not replicated, only small portions are quoted. Always keep in mind that the original author has the right to make copies of, to sell, and to distribute his or her work. If you are commenting on a book, for example, and you duplicate the entire manuscript, even if you are doing so for commentary purposes, you are making that work easily accessible to the public, which means the original author may suffer profit loss.

What to Remember

If you are ever in doubt as to whether you are bordering on copyright infringement, contact the source and ask for permission to use the excerpt that you want to use. Always use proper quotes and citations, and be original. If you use your own ideas, you can be sure to avoid possible complications.


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