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Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Plagiarism

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This page outlines just some of many frequently asked questions regarding plagiarism. For more information about how to avoid plagiarism, as well as best practices, visit some of our additional plagiarism resources. 

When is it Plagiarism? 

There are instances when something is clearly intentional plagiarism: buying, stealing, or borrowing a paper from someone else. This includes: 

  • Copying a blog post or stealing an article from online.  
  • Hiring someone to write your paper for you.  
  • Copying a large section of text from a source without making it clear it comes from somewhere else through quotation marks or proper citation.  
  • Intentionally failing to cite someone else’s work, to claim that the ideas and words belong to you. 
  • It is possible to plagiarize from yourself. In academia, if you repurpose a paper from previous class or write one paper for two classes without the instructor’s permission this is plagiarism 

Writers may also unintentionally plagiarize. This usually happens for a few common reasons: 

  • The writer doesn’t fully understand the citation system they are using and ends up missing key elements of the source attribution. 
  • The writer thinks they are paraphrasing (restating a source’s point in their own words) and ends up accidentally directly quoting words or phrases without realizing; in this case there is usually some attribution to the source, but not the right kind (paraphrasing vs quoting). 
  • The writer misattributes a quote or idea to the wrong source; this is especially common in larger research projects where the writer is dealing with a lot of source material.

What could happen if I plagiarize?  

Students who unintentionally plagiarize often (but not always) have a meeting with their teacher, who usually goes over the issue with the student and explains how to avoid it in the future. Many teachers understand that citation practices are complex and can be difficult for beginners to learn, and therefore treat one instance of accidental plagiarism as a learning opportunity.  

However, this is not always the case. Program or department policy may force teachers to begin disciplinary proceedings about plagiarism immediately; you should always be aware that this issue is serious and not to be brushed off or ignored. The best defense against disciplinary proceedings is knowledge — fully understanding citation practices and employing them in your writing so that you don’t plagiarize is always going to be your best option. You can find our extensive citation resources here.

The corporate world and universities in particular have very strict guidelines for those accused of plagiarism. It is important to familiarize yourself with your university policy, because the consequences can be serious, which includes: 

  • Automatic failure of the paper 
  • Automatic failure of the class 
  • A report to the Dean of Students 
  • Some universities make it their policy for it to appear on your Official Transcript, which are usually needed when applying for jobs or graduate school  
  • Some programs will dismiss you; for example, the English department at your university may tell you to apply to a different area of study 
  • The university may dismiss you completely  
  • In the corporate world, you may face litigation depending on who the victim is 
  • Your job may fire you in order to avoid the company being associated with a plagiarist

Some of these consequences may seem harsh or extreme, but they are meant to stop students from plagiarizing. This is a crime and it is also an ethical dilemma. You are in school to learn and produce original work; you are doing yourself a disservice by paying someone else to write your work or reuse an old paper.  

If you find yourself in a situation when you are out of time to work on a research project, which is usually one of the common reasons why well-meaning students plagiarize, it is always better to have an open communication with your professor before you turn to plagiarism. Professors are there and want to help students, but they cannot help you if they do not know you need it.  

When should I cite a source to avoid plagiarizing? 

 Always give credit where credit is due. If the words that you are including in your research belong to someone else, give credit.  

Here is a brief list of what needs to be credited or documented: 

  • Words or ideas presented in a magazine, book, newspaper, song, TV program, movie, website, computer program, letter, advertisement, or any other medium 
  • Information you gain through interviewing or conversing with another person, face to face, over the phone, or in writing 
  • When you copy the exact words or a unique phrase 
  • When you reprint any diagrams, illustrations, charts, pictures, or other visual materials 
  • When you reuse or repost any digital media, including images, audio, video, or other media 

There are certain things that do not need documentation or credit, including: 

  • Writing your own lived experiences, your own observations and insights, your own thoughts, and your own conclusions about a subject 
  • When you are writing up your own results obtained through lab or field experiments 
  • When you use your own artwork, digital photographs, video, audio, etc. 
  • When you are using "common knowledge," things like folklore, common sense observations, myths, urban legends, and historical events (but not historical documents) 
  • When you are using generally accepted facts (e.g., pollution is bad for the environment) including facts that are accepted within particular discourse communities (e.g., in the field of composition studies, "writing is a process" is a generally accepted fact). 

What if I am accused of plagiarism, but I didn’t plagiarize?

It is important to keep notes and previous drafts of your paper, especially if you become a victim of theft yourself. This can happen in many different ways (a roommate copying your files, using a computer from a lab that still has someone else’s log in, etc).

There are some simple and easy tips to keep your intellectual property safe:

  • Do not save your paper in the same file over and over again. Use a numbering system and the Save As function.
    • You might have research_paper001.doc, research_paper002.doc, research_paper003.doc as you progress.
    • Do the same thing for any online files you are working with. Having multiple draft versions may help prove that the work is yours (assuming you are being ethical in how you cite ideas in your work)
  • Maintain copies of your draft in numerous media, and different secure locations when possible.
    • Do not rely only on your hard drive, it can crash.
    • Do not rely only on a USB drive, you can lose it.
    • Do not rely only on cloud services, you might not be able to gain access for whatever reason.
  • Many students typically use one or more of the methods above to secure their files, including emailing themselves or emailing a friend, with their permission.
  • Password protect your computer.
    • If you have to leave the computer lab for a bathroom break, lock or log out of your station
  • Password protect your files.
    • This is possible in all sorts of programs, from Adobe Acrobat to Microsoft Word
    • Just don’t forget your password
    • If you have never tried this method before but would like to, use a different file for a test run to see how it works.
  • Cloud-based platforms like Dropbox or Google Drive, be sure to save multiple separate drafts of your work, rather than just editing over the original.
    • If this is a habit you currently, you can make sure you have a Master Copy that you will eventually turn in, and open or create new documents and save them in the filing method mentioned above.