What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism is a common problem, primarily among students. This plagiarism quick guide offers an overview of what plagiarism is, what the consequences are and how plagiarism can be avoided.

Definition of plagiarism

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines plagiarism as follows:

“To steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own: to use (another’s production) without crediting the source

We’ve highlighted two sections of this definition.

  1. Many people think plagiarism is stealing someone else’s words, but it also means stealing someone else’s ideas. In other words, even if you paraphrase a text, the idea still needs to be cited.
  2. The phrase “without crediting the source” means that it’s okay to use the words and ideas of others, but you have to cite the source to avoid committing plagiarism.

Types of plagiarism

Plagiarism takes various forms. It ranges from reusing an entire document to rewriting a single paragraph. In the end, all types of plagiarism come down to passing off someone else’s ideas or words as your own.

Common types of plagiarism
Copy-and-paste plagiarismCopy-and-paste plagiarism, also known as direct plagiarism, means using a paragraph from another source without a citation.

If you really want to include a passage from another source word for word, you should learn how to quote it.

Mosaic plagiarismCopying and pasting different pieces of text together to create a kind of “mosaic” or “patchwork” of other researchers’ ideas is plagiarism.

Although the result is a completely new piece of text, the words and ideas aren’t new.

Self-plagiarismWhen you use parts of your previous work (e.g. a paper, a literature review or a dataset) without properly citing it, you commit what’s called self-plagiarism.

Although it sounds a bit crazy to be penalized for plagiarizing your own work, you should know that it is done because it goes against the expectations of the readers of your paper. They expect the work to be original.

Global plagiarismWhen you use someone else’s paper, you are committing plagiarism because you are pretending that the words and ideas are yours.

Using someone else’s work includes, for example, having a friend or family write the text for you or buying an essay from a so-called essay mill.

Consequences of plagiarism

The consequences of plagiarism depend on the type of plagiarism and whether you’re a first-year student, an experienced academic or a working professional.

These are some possible consequences of plagiarism:

  • Failing the course
  • Expulsion or suspension from your university
  • Copyright infringement
  • Ruined reputation and potentially the end of your career

Statements about plagiarism from universities and journals

The consequences of committing plagiarism vary according to the university or journal. Below, you can find statements from American University and the American Marketing Association (AMA). Always check the editorial policies and academic integrity code of your institution.

American University

“Sanctions for code violations [plagiarism] include loss of credit for the assignment, a failing grade for the course, a permanent notation on the transcript and dismissal from the university.”

American Marketing Association

“The penalty will be dictated by the nature of the offense and will likely include a ban on submitting to any journal published by the AMA for a period of time. All sitting Editors of AMA journals will be informed. … In extreme circumstances, the committee reserves the right to inform an author’s institution, depending on the seriousness of the offense.”

How to avoid plagiarism

To avoid plagiarism, simply follow these two steps:

  1. Quote, paraphrase or summarize the words or ideas from someone else.
  2. Give credit to the original source by including a citation in the text and the reference list.

What information needs to be cited?

Not all the information you use needs to be cited. Some information is considered common knowledge. Common knowledge is information that most people know. Here are a few examples:

  • Donald Trump is the president of the United States.
  • The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rainforest.

The concept seems simple, but common knowledge can differ from person to person. Therefore, you should ask yourself who your readers are and what they consider to be common knowledge.

To help you, we developed a common knowledge test that tells you whether or not you need to cite the information.

Common knowledge test

How to cite sources

To cite your sources, you can use several citation styles, such as APA Style, MLA format or Chicago Style citations. Universities and journals often tell you which citation style to use. You should cite sources both in the running text with an in-text citation, footnote or endnote and in the reference list.

The in-text citation often only names the author(s) and the year of publication. The reference list contains all the information about a source, including the title of the work and the website URL.

Citation example (APA journal article)

In-text citation

Recent research shows many of these Southern cities are dealing with crises which are compounded by rapid population growth (Watson, 2009).

In the reference list

Watson, V. (2009). ‘The planned city sweeps the poor away…’: Urban planning and 21st century urbanisation. Progress in Planning, 72(3), 151–193. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.progress.2009.06.002

Every source type, such as a website, book or journal article, has different citation guidelines. For instance, you only include a URL when you cite a website. Be sure to check the guidelines of the citation style you use.

The easiest way to cite your sources is by using the Scribbr Citation Generator, as you only have to enter the website URL, book ISBN or journal DOI. All the relevant information is automatically retrieved and translated into a citation.

How to detect plagiarism

Detecting plagiarism isn’t too difficult. Either the reader of your text notices a change in tone and writing style when reading a passage or uses plagiarism detection tools.

These days, all documents submitted to a university or journal are automatically checked for plagiarism using software like Turnitin. Turnitin is the leading company in plagiarism detection software.

Institutions make use of plagiarism checkers, and you can too!

How do plagiarism checkers work?

Plagiarism checkers compare your document to a database of existing texts. The plagiarism software searches for similarities and highlights passages that contain potential plagiarism.

Not all plagiarism checkers are reliable. Where one plagiarism checker detects 2% plagiarism, another might detect 45% plagiarism.

The accuracy of plagiarism depends on two things:

  1. Database size
    Some plagiarism checkers only compare the uploaded document with web pages, while others also check books, publications and papers from other students.
  2. Plagiarism algorithm
    Most plagiarism checkers are only capable of detecting exact similarities. However, if the sentence structure is changed, if synonyms are used or if two sources are combined, most plagiarism checkers won’t detect the plagiarism.

Which plagiarism checker should I use?

You can choose between many free and paid plagiarism checkers. Before you decide to use a plagiarism checker, you should pay attention to these elements:

  • How much plagiarism it can detect
  • The price – many claim to be free but only offer a very limited free trial
  • Privacy and safety – some plagiarism checkers sell your document

At Scribbr, we tested all the popular plagiarism checkers to answer these questions. We made two comparisons: the first compared plagiarism checkers that claim to be free, and the second compared both free and paid plagiarism checkers.

Free plagiarism checker comparison Best plagiarism checker comparison

Plagiarism prevention checklist

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