You know the definition of plagiarism—using someone else’s words, work, or ideas and passing them off as your own. Some plagiarism is intentional. Using an essay-writing service, for example, is obviously and intentionally plagiarism. It’s wrong, and we all know it, so I don’t have much to say about it here.

However, the majority of plagiarism—at least in first-year college classes—is inadvertent. It usually happens when a student is trying to paraphrase, quote, or cite a source, but they fail to do so correctly. Let’s take each of these in turn.

Paraphrasing and Plagiarizing

Paraphrase is the biggest culprit. When a student tries to paraphrase, but ends up patchwriting instead, the language sticks too close to the original. The best way to avoid this, at least until you become more expert with paraphrasing, is the process I describe in the section on paraphrasing:

  • Understand the passage
  • Close the source
  • Give yourself a short break
  • Write the paraphrase
  • Check it against the original

If your paraphrase is still too close to the original in either word choice or sentence structure (or both), try paraphrasing your paraphrase.

Quoting and Plagiarizing

Quotations make it easier to avoid plagiarism, but you can still make mistakes.

The most common mistake I see is a student’s failing to use quotation marks when the words come directly from the source. When you use exact language from a source, even if it is a phrase of just a few words, you must use quotation marks. You don’t need to do this around commonly used language and phrasing, but if the wording is at all specific to the source, you need to include the quotation marks. If you don’t have quotation marks around that exact language, you are claiming the language as your own, which could be considered plagiarism.

Citing and Plagiarizing

Sometimes students forget to include the citations themselves, which can be considered plagiarism. Every time you quote and every time you paraphrase, you need to give credit to your source. The specifics of what the citation will look like vary, but if you don’t have a citation, you could be accused of plagiarism.

This is especially true of in-text citations. Most professors will see a source missing from your list and assume a mistake, but missing in-text citations, particularly when citing paraphrases, aren’t as obviously mistakes.

This problem seems to happen most to students who think that they will add the citations later. While this strategy can work to help you keep drafting, if you don’t leave yourself some kind of reminder that you need to add the citations, you can have a serious problem later on. If you draft this way, I recommend that you add parentheses as a reminder. It can be even more helpful if you put some kind of reminder about which source you are using.

Another common problem I see is students thinking that it’s enough to include a citation at the end of a paragraph, particularly when there are several sentences from the same source that require citation. I’ve also seen this at the end of slide decks, where students skip the in-text citations.

This is not sufficient! While there are more elegant and sophisticated ways to cite, you are better off adding a parenthetical citation to the end of every sentence than to leave one off. Look at it this way: If you cite too much, at worst, your professor will tell you that you don’t need so much citation. If you cite too little, you can be accused of plagiarism.

If you have a long-ish section of material coming from the same source, such as when you are writing a summary, your best bet is to open that section with a reference to the author (in the sentence itself if your style guide and/or professor allows this), and then reminding your reader that the ideas are coming from that author another one or two times during the section by using pronouns and to signal that these ideas are not yours. And remember that you must include page numbers whenever your quote or paraphrase (again, unless directed otherwise by your style guide and/or professor).

Plagiarizing Sources Other Than Writing

Written words are not the only things that can be plagiarized. If you include images, videos, sound clips, or other media that you did not create yourself, you need to give credit to the creator of those texts. Usually, this is done in a caption, particularly if the final product is a paper. Different style guides will have instructions for citing in captions, but if you aren’t sure how best to do this, ask your professor.

Copyright, Creative Commons, “Fair Use,” and Plagiarism

To understand plagiarism, it helps to understand a bit about the idea of intellectual property

Copyrighted work is owned by that work’s creator until and unless they assign their rights to someone else or until they apply a license. The technicalities are not terribly important for our purposes, but as a student, you should assume that all written text, audio files, images, and video you have access to is copyrighted, whether you see a © symbol or not. Normally, you have to ask permission to use a copyrighted work.

However, as a student, you usually don’t because of a concept called “fair use.” Among other things, “fair use” allows students to use copyrighted material for educational purposes without asking permission. So, you can pick up copyrighted images, videos, or audio files from the internet and include them in your final projects, as long as those final pieces are not going to be shared publicly. You still have to cite them, though!

Creative Commons licenses work in conjunction with copyright. CC licenses let creators assign permissions to their work in advance. Some licenses allow people to use the work freely, including remixing and adapting it. This text, for example, has a CC BY-SA 4.0 license, allowing others “to distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon the material in any medium or format, so long as attribution is given to the creator. The license allows for commercial use. If you remix, adapt, or build upon the material, you must license the modified material under identical terms.” I have given it this license because I want other people to use what I have created, and I do not want anyone to be able to change the licensing so that it couldn’t be shared or remixed. I have also used CC-licensed work in the creation of this text. Notice that all of the CC licenses include attribution.

No matter whether you are using material under the “fair use” doctrine or Creative Commons licensing, you still have to give credit to the creator of the work you are using. If you do not give credit—if you do not attribute the work to its creator—you could be plagiarizing. We’ll leave it to the courts to sort out the legal technicalities, but as a student, you need to provide attribution for all ideas and work that is not your own.

Key Points: Plagiarizing

  • You can plagiarize by paraphrasing, quoting, or citing poorly.
  • Poor paraphrasing, also called , leaves the language too close to the original. This would be considered plagiarism.
  • Failure to include quotation marks around exact phrasing from a source would be considered plagiarism.
  • Failure to include citations—usually in-text, but also reference list entries—can be considered plagiarism.
  • It is not enough to include a citation at the end of a paragraph or slide deck. You need to make sure your reader knows where you are getting your ideas all the way through your text. It is better to cite too much than not enough.
  • You can also plagiarize images, videos, audio files, and other intellectual property, particularly if you do not cite them properly.