What Is Plagiarism? | Definition & Examples

Plagiarism means using someone else’s work without giving them proper credit. In academic writing, plagiarizing involves using words, ideas, or information from a source without citing it correctly. In practice, this can mean a few different things.

Examples of plagiarism Why is it wrong?
Copying parts of a text word for word, without quotation marks It makes it seem like these are your own words.
Paraphrasing a text by changing a few words or altering the sentence structure, without citing the source It makes it seem like you came up with the idea, when in fact you just rephrased someone else’s idea.
Giving incorrect information about a source If readers can’t find the cited source, they can’t check the information themselves.
Quoting so much from a source that it makes up the majority of your text Even with proper citations, you’re not making an original contribution if you rely so much on someone else’s words.
Reusing work you’ve submitted for a previous assignment, without citing yourself Even though it’s your own work, the reader should be informed that it’s not completely new but comes from previous research.
Submitting a text written entirely by someone else (e.g., a paper you bought from a ghostwriter) Not doing the work yourself is academically dishonest, undermines your learning, and is unfair to other students.

Common questions about plagiarism

It’s easy to understand why you shouldn’t buy essays, but students often struggle with the details of quoting, paraphrasing, and citing sources. Below, we address some questions and misconceptions students often have about plagiarism.

I need to quote and paraphrase a lot. Won’t my paper be full of distracting citations?

It’s true that some papers do feature a lot of citations. There are ways to reduce clutter by citing more efficiently, such as:

  • Combining multiple citations into one set of parentheses (usually separated by semicolons)
  • Not repeating the full citation when you cite the same source multiple times in a row
  • Using “ibid.” to indicate a repeated citation (in certain styles)
  • Omitting citations for information that is common knowledge

Do I need to cite a certain number of sources? Can citing too much be a bad thing?

There’s no fixed number of sources you should cite. Your use of sources should be based on strengthening your argument, not meeting a quota. A high number of citations isn’t inherently a good or bad thing. Some types of academic text (e.g., a literature review) are more likely to cite a lot of sources than others.

When you do think you’ve cited too much, it’s worth considering whether you need all the information you’ve included. All information should directly contribute to your argument, not just be tangentially related.

One thing you should avoid is quoting too much. If large portions of your text consist of someone else’s words, it distracts from your own arguments. It’s usually better to paraphrase unless you’re specifically analyzing the language of the source (e.g., in literary analysis).

Is it better to just avoid using sources so I don’t risk accidental plagiarism?

No, using sources is an essential part of academic writing. Academic research is an ongoing conversation between researchers. Drawing on other sources, and positioning your own ideas in relation to them, is not optional.

But it’s understandable to be concerned about plagiarism. If you’re worried about the possibility of accidental plagiarism, make sure to:

  • Quote and paraphrase sources correctly
  • Manage and cite your sources using a citation generator
  • Use a plagiarism checker before submitting your work to detect any problems
  • Use generative AI tools responsibly (outputs may be detected by an AI detector)

Is paraphrasing a kind of plagiarism?

No, paraphrasing is just a way of incorporating information from a source into your text by putting it into your own words. As long as you cite the source correctly, paraphrasing is the best way to incorporate information in most cases.

However, paraphrasing can be considered plagiarism if you:

  • Don’t cite the source of the information, or cite it incorrectly
  • Phrase the information in a way that’s too close to the original (e.g., just swapping out a couple of words instead of reformulating the sentence)

More tools and resources for avoiding plagiarism

Scribbr offers a variety of tools and services designed to help you with citations and plagiarism checking, including the best plagiarism checker available.

Plagiarism Checker

Citation Generator Citation Checker Citation Editing

And you can check out the in-depth articles below to learn more about the different kinds of plagiarism, its consequences, and how to avoid it:

Frequently asked questions about plagiarism

What happens if you plagiarize?

The consequences of plagiarism vary depending on the type of plagiarism and the context in which it occurs. For example, submitting a whole paper by someone else will have the most severe consequences, while accidental citation errors are considered less serious.

If you’re a student, then you might fail the course, be suspended or expelled, or be obligated to attend a workshop on plagiarism. It depends on whether it’s your first offense or you’ve done it before.

As an academic or professional, plagiarizing seriously damages your reputation. You might also lose your research funding or your job, and you could even face legal consequences for copyright infringement.

Is paraphrasing considered plagiarism?

Paraphrasing without crediting the original author is a form of plagiarism, because you’re presenting someone else’s ideas as if they were your own.

However, paraphrasing is not plagiarism if you correctly cite the source. This means including an in-text citation and a full reference, formatted according to your required citation style.

As well as citing, make sure that any paraphrased text is completely rewritten in your own words.

Can plagiarism be accidental?

Accidental plagiarism is one of the most common examples of plagiarism. Perhaps you forgot to cite a source, or paraphrased something a bit too closely. Maybe you can’t remember where you got an idea from, and aren’t totally sure if it’s original or not.

These all count as plagiarism, even though you didn’t do it on purpose. When in doubt, make sure you’re citing your sources. Also consider running your work through a plagiarism checker tool prior to submission, which work by using advanced database software to scan for matches between your text and existing texts.

Scribbr’s Plagiarism Checker takes less than 10 minutes and can help you turn in your paper with confidence.

How is plagiarism detected?

Plagiarism can be detected by your professor or readers if the tone, formatting, or style of your text is different in different parts of your paper, or if they’re familiar with the plagiarized source.

Many universities also use plagiarism detection software like Turnitin’s, which compares your text to a large database of other sources, flagging any similarities that come up.

It can be easier than you think to commit plagiarism by accident. Consider using a plagiarism checker prior to submitting your paper to ensure you haven’t missed any citations.

Are plagiarism checkers accurate?

The accuracy depends on the plagiarism checker you use. Per our in-depth research, Scribbr is the most accurate plagiarism checker. Many free plagiarism checkers fail to detect all plagiarism or falsely flag text as plagiarism.

Plagiarism checkers work by using advanced database software to scan for matches between your text and existing texts. Their accuracy is determined by two factors: the algorithm (which recognizes the plagiarism) and the size of the database (with which your document is compared).

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