Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

Defining Plagiarism

To steal or not to steal? That is the question.

According to Merriam-Webster, ‘to plagiarize is to steal and pass off the ideas or words of another as one’s own.’ Another definition of plagiarize is ‘to use another’s production without crediting the source.’ While intentional plagiarism is a problem, we’re going to focus on unintentional plagiarism. While it may seem improbable that someone could steal by accident, it can happen quite easily with writing!

Citation Examples

First, I want you to take a look some passages that are going to come on your screen and decide for yourself which ones need a citation.

‘Depression affects 1 in 10 adults in the United States.’ Does this sentence need a citation?

What about this sentence? ‘All raw chicken should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees.’

How about this one? ‘It felt like it was at least 90 degrees outside yesterday!’

If you are keeping score, the first two sentences did, in fact, need a citation. The last sentence, because it was an opinion of an individual, did not need a citation. A good rule of thumb for determining if you need to cite a source is to ask yourself these simple questions:

1. How do I know this information? If you know this information because you learned it from someone else, then you need to cite your source.

2. Am I presenting this information as a fact? If you are presenting information as fact, you need to cite your source and give credit where credit is due.

3. When I typed this information in a search engine, did I find sources that had been published with this idea? Here is where people tend to get into trouble. Sometimes we may have read information a while ago and don’t quite remember where we heard it. Sometimes we assume things are common knowledge when it’s really just information we have been exposed to so often, we forget it isn’t simply a part of our genetic make-up. Doing a search of information you originally thought you just made up will let you realize you may have been exposed to it before. No matter how brief that exposure, you need to give credit.

Now, let’s try this example:

‘I feel that one class that should be mandatory in all colleges is finance. This is due to the fact that in 2011 alone, the average student loan debt was over $21,000.’

I was giving my opinion, so do I also need a citation? The answer is yes, because although I gave an opinion statement, the opinion was grounded in a fact produced by someone else.

How about one more example for good measure:

‘I have often felt the first Shakespeare play one should encounter is The Comedy of Errors. This play, while short, is filled with the most interesting characters – my favorite being Dromio of Ephesus, who has the first encounter of mistaken identity.’

Do I need to cite a source? Here is a common question people ask. Do they need to cite a source when they are putting information in their own words?

The answer is yes. I need to cite Shakespeare as a source. I need to let them know when it was written and where they can find it. Yes, I need to provide a source for that. Even though it was influenced by my opinion, it was still my opinion that was grounded in a fact – the character from the play. Although you are paraphrasing information, you are still using knowledge you gained from the work of someone else. Even if you are evaluating, critiquing or discounting the work of someone else, you need to cite the information you got from that individual.

Another Area of Plagiarism

There is another area of plagiarism that must be covered as well. This is where someone takes a large piece from another author’s work – even with a citation. While penning a love letter by simply writing down all the words from a Michael Jackson song may work in romance, that won’t be acceptable in academic or professional writing.

Even if you cite the source, you are not allowed to take entire sections of someone else’s work and say things like: ‘this author said it all and I have nothing to add’ or ‘former research is sufficient on this topic, so I will just post their findings.’ If you find yourself writing a paper, and there is nothing left for you to add, you need to choose another topic. A paper submitted to most professors containing large chunks of cut and pasted material will be considered a work of plagiarism. Make sure you are adding something novel to the papers you are writing.

Lesson Summary

So, what we have learned is that to plagiarize is ‘to steal or pass off the work of others as your own’ – to not give credit where credit is due. While some acts of plagiarism are intentional, others are not intentional. Whether or not that plagiarism is intentional, it is still considered a big issue in academia. It is up to you, the author, to avoid it.

If you don’t know whether or not you are presenting information that needs to be cited, consider how you know that information. Even when citing a source, using large chunks of the words of other individuals is still considered plagiarism. If you don’t feel you have anything to add to a paper you are writing that hasn’t already been said by someone else, you may need to find a new topic. Remember, plagiarism is a serious charge that has some pretty stiff consequences. It is your responsibility, as the author, to avoid plagiarizing other people’s work.

Join the conversation