Merriam Webster says that to plagiarize is “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own…without crediting the source,” then broadens this to also include “present[ing] as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.”
Basically, plagiarism is taking someone else’s ideas or products and pretending that you came up with them yourself either by directly lying or through neglecting to cite the source. However, saying it like that is taking it too lightly. Plagiarism is illegal.
It is a type of theft and fraud, and is closely connected to things like copyright infringement, trademark law, and violations of intellectual property rights. Though most schools and universities tend to treat plagiarism as an ethical problem and not a legal one, merely suspending or expelling students who are caught, many people have been sued for plagiarism and forced to pay back money or remove their copied product from circulation.
Different Kinds of Plagiarism
Before we can get into the different ways to plagiarize, it’s important to at least give examples of what kinds of things can be stolen in this way. Generally speaking, plagiarism can refer to the theft of
- Literary works—directly or indirectly trying to pass off another’s written ideas as your own
- Music—many artists have been accused of reusing others’ melodies without permission, and some have even lifted entire parts of someone else’s song and used it in their own
- Written or recorded speeches—a number of politicians have fallen into the trap of using ideas or specific lines from previous speakers without attribution
- Recipes—though the copyright laws on recipes are vague, famous chefs who take others’ recipes and publish them as their own have lost their jobs and faced criticism
- Images and visual art—the internet and programs like Photoshop make it easy to take others’ images and either simply use them without attribution or digitally manipulate them
- Computer programs—people can now plagiarize the code in computer programs to make their own version, either directly copying or slightly altering the code with fairly meaningless changes so that it will appear different enough to the untrained eye
There are probably other kinds of works that can be plagiarized depending on how the term is defined, but the law tends to be malleable, especially with artistic endeavors. Students, however, should be particularly careful. Because while universities rarely take any legal action, they often have a broader view on what constitutes plagiarism.
Many people think that for something to be plagiarized, it has to be a direct quote or sample from another person’s work, but that is decidedly not the case. Here are a number of different acts that technically count as plagiarism.
Wholesale copying. This is the version most understand to be plagiarizing, where you directly copy and paste entire sections of another’s work into your own without any kind of citation. The only way to use someone else’s work in this way is to place quotation marks around the entire passage and directly cite the author. Without the quotation marks, even if you give the author credit at the end of the section, you are plagiarizing.
Stealing phrases and ideas. Taking an idea from an already published work and using only a few specific phrases that you really like without using quotation marks and giving attribution is still plagiarism.
Paraphrasing language, ideas, and structure. One of the hardest things for some people to understand is that even if you change every single word from a paragraph but keep the same general idea and structure that the original author used, you are plagiarizing. In this case, you wouldn’t need to quote, but you would need to cite the author at the bottom of the section to indicate from the source of your information.
Mixing and matching. It’s still plagiarizing if you use ideas from several sources and mix them together without citing them. The only difference, really, is that you are plagiarizing multiple people at once instead of just one. Some people try a different version of this where they cite everything to the point that nothing in their work is original. Research is supposed to support your own work, not become it.
Recycling. Did you know that you can plagiarize yourself? It’s true. Try to pass off parts of your previous work as new and you can get into a lot of trouble. It should be noted that this is typically only considered plagiarism for scholarly works and in academic settings. Anything that’s more of the public or social discourse doesn’t count in the same way.
Lazy citation. You can’t cite some sources while neglecting to attribute others that are clearly not your own work. There’s no partial credit where plagiarizing is concerned. If you use someone’s wording or ideas, cite it.
Fake or dead sources. This is one that is becoming more and more of a problem as people use the internet for research. Sometimes people will cite their work following correct protocols but when someone attempts to track down the source, it doesn’t contain the correct information or seems to have disappeared. Why is this more problematic with the internet? Because it’s a lot easier for sites to vanish than it is for books and periodicals.
How to Recognize Plagiarism
Recognizing plagiarism is not always easy. In part, it comes with experience and familiarity. Teachers who work with specific subjects for years tend to be very aware of the resources out there and often catch direct, unattributed quotes because of this.
There is also a sort of sixth sense that develops over time. When you read something that sounds too polished or formal, it can be an indicator that the person got their information from another source but neglected to mention it. The problem in cases like this is that you won’t know for sure that the section was plagiarized and likely won’t know how to prove it.
Tools have popped up recently to help in this fight, most notably sites like Copyscape and Small SEO Tools Plagiarism Checker. Using these, you can copy and paste text and the programs will scour the web to see if they can track down exact matches for the language.
Unfortunately, it only works for websites, and only if the language closely matches something that’s already been published—if the potentially plagiarized material was heavily rewritten, it won’t show up. Still, with so much new information appearing out there every single day, these can be invaluable tools.
Writers worried that they might be plagiarizing without intending to do so should try to learn as much about the different kinds of ways it’s possible to plagiarize and seek out examples so that they can recognize it in their own work. One great resource is Indiana University’s plagiarism tutorial. You can see examples, learn about actual cases of plagiarism, and even take a test.
How to Avoid Plagiarizing
Because there are so many types of plagiarism and ways to plagiarize, it’s possible to do so without even realizing it. However, in most cases you should be able to avoid it fairly easily by following a few simple steps.
Start from your own idea. This is probably the most important way to ensure that you don’t plagiarize because it’s not as simple as the others once you get into the actual writing and research portion of your work. By starting with your own concept, you’ll seek out resources that support your ideas and flesh them out instead of stumbling across someone else’s point of view and deciding to take it as your own.
Use a style manual. Even if you try to cite things correctly, making just one mistake can mean that you have plagiarized. Because of this, you really want to use a style manual when you are deciding how to attribute the information in your work that comes from other sources.
Let quotation marks be your friends. Any time you copy and paste direct wording from another source into your own work, it needs to be in quotation marks. This is even true if you’re only taking individual words from the other person’s work if those words are specific enough. For example, you probably wouldn’t need to quote words like “the” or “to,” but take the word “crystalline” from someone else’s work and it should have quotation marks.
When in doubt, cite. The problem that most unintentional plagiarists run into is when they paraphrase or rework ideas from other sources into something of their own creation. This doesn’t feel like plagiarizing because you’re changing so much, but it can be. If you are ever in doubt about something truly being your work because you’ve gleaned some of the ideas from another source, it’s always best to include a citation at the end of the section.
Plagiarizing is a big problem that only seems to be getting bigger with so much content out there online and so many new tools that can be used. But that doesn’t mean that we should just bow down to plagiarism and see it as inevitable. By educating people about it and how they can prevent it—both in their own work and that of others—we can stem the tide and ensure that there is still a place for unique and original ideas to flourish.