What is Plagiarism?

Understand the ethical responsibilities of authors. Avoid plagiarism and academic dishonesty.

Plagiarism involves

  1. The theft of someone else’s words
  2. The theft of someone else’s ideas
  3. The failure to properly cite someone’s ideas, either directly or in a paraphrase.

Plagiarism can be deliberate or the result of carelessness.

When incorporating outside sources, it’s important to be conscious of what constitutes plagiarism and to avoid plagiarizing material. Ignorance of plagiarism and intellectual property is a serious matter because being found guilty of plagiarism may lead to harsh academic penalties. Plagiarism is a form of intellectual property theft.

Plagiarism occurs when an author uses someone else’s ideas, words, or style in his or her own writing without properly attributing the information to that source. While many people think that plagiarism only occurs when a writer directly copies someone else’s words, there are many other types of plagiarism:

  • using the ideas of someone else without referencing that source
    • if you use three or more words from a source you should place quotation marks around those words and cite accordingly.
  • failing to capture a source’s point in your own words when paraphrasing;
  • mimicking an author’s style; and
  • neglecting to include an in-text citation for a quote, paraphrase, or summary.

Plagiarism occurs when you use someone else’s ideas.

A writer can plagiarize a source by referencing the ideas espoused by another writer without giving credit to (citing) the original source. Let’s say, for example, that you read an article by Jennifer Yirinec called “Dramatic Representations of the Indian Mutiny.” In reading that article, you learn that Yirinec views dramatic representations of the Indian Mutiny as showing some negativity toward the colony of India. In referencing this idea in your own paper, you would have to provide an in-text citation. Below is an example of how the writer should reference this idea:

Original quote (from source):

“I argue that dramatic representations of the Indian Mutiny shed a negative light upon the colony of India.” (from Jennifer Yirinec, “Dramatic Representations of the Indian Mutiny,” pg. 54).

Writer’s incorporation of this idea into her paper:

The Indian Mutiny inspired many English dramas that depicted India in a negative light (Yirinec 54).

Even if you’re not quoting or paraphrasing, you’re referencing an idea that came from someone else; as such, it’s important to provide an in-text citation that attributes the idea to the source.

Plagiarism occurs when you switch words around.

Paraphrasing can be tricky, and sometimes students who mean to paraphrase can unintentionally plagiarize by failing to communicate a source’s ideas in their own words; however, this doesn’t lessen the offense, so it’s important to learn to paraphrase correctly. Paraphrasing does not mean merely switching words around. You’ll learn more about paraphrasing in another piece in this section, but for now, let’s take a look at an example of plagiarism:

Original quote (from source):

“I argue that dramatic representations of the Indian Mutiny shed a negative light upon the colony of India.” (from Jennifer Yirinec, “Dramatic Representations of the Indian Mutiny,” pg. 54)

Line from student paper:

Dramatic representations figuring the Indian Mutiny depict India, a colony of Britain, in a negative light (Yirinec 54).

You see, these excerpts are very similar; though they are worded slightly differently, paraphrasing requires the writer to represent the source’s ideas in his or her own words—not to jumble the original source’s words to create a new sentence.

Plagiarism occurs when you mimic an author’s style.

While it’s certainly productive to read published articles to learn how prominent writers structure and communicate their ideas, writers should not copy other writers’ styles. Yes, even mimicking an author’s style counts as plagiarism. When reading academic articles, note how writers organize their paragraphs, articulate their theses, vary their diction and sentence structure, and incorporate source material, but be careful not to steal another author’s style. You don’t want to write exactly like someone else, anyway! Learn from many different published authors, determine what strategies work best for you, and negotiate different strategies based upon your rhetorical situation and purpose. But always be yourself in writing.

Plagiarism occurs when you forget to include an in-text citation.

Even if you forget to drop in an in-text citation for a source that you quote, paraphrase, or summarize but do reference the source in your works cited page, you are still plagiarizing another author’s words and/or ideas. That’s why it’s always important to consider what ideas are your own and what ideas you’ve gleaned from outside sources during the research and writing processes. It’s generally a bad idea to write a draft in which you include quotes and paraphrases without ensuing citations, intending to return later to the draft and insert the necessary in-text citations—if you do this, you might overlook source material when you return to the paper.

Plagiarism has many different levels—some offenses are greater than others. A common student fear is that he or she will plagiarize material unknowingly—that he or she will accidentally reference an idea or phrase that came from a source he or she hasn’t read. This is actually pretty rare, and if it happens, it is something that you can discuss with your instructor. Do not be afraid to incorporate evidence into your paper just because you’re worried that you’ll unintentionally plagiarize. Referencing others’ ideas is essential in a research assignment. Hopefully the pieces on introducing and integrating evidence will help you successfully incorporate evidence into your assignments without plagiarizing. But also be sure to check out your individual university’s plagiarism policy.

Related Resources

Intellectual Property

In order to avoid inadvertent plagiarism or academic dishonesty, you must understand intellectual property and copyright. In our digital age, where users can easily download information, we must consider these issues from an ethical perspective as well.

Brevity, Clutter, Concision
Brevity, Clutter, Concision are synonyms used to contrast wordy writing with concise writing.

Writing with Sources

  • Learn how to introduce and correctly summarize, paraphrase, and cite sources.
  • Explore conventions for weaving others’ ideas and words into your prose without destroying your focus and voice.


Understand the ethical responsibilities of authors. Avoid plagiarism and academic dishonesty.

Edit for Plagiarism
Consider using a plagiarism checklist as you draft and edit your work.