What is plagiarism?

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.

Plagiarism can occur in many different contexts. While often associated with school assignments, it can also happen in professional settings, such as the arts, academia, and the business world.

Types of plagiarism

Plagiarism can involve copying words or images directly, paraphrasing sentences or passages, or co-opting someone else’s ideas without citing the original work.

In academic writing, there are various types of plagiarism you might encounter:

  • Global plagiarism means plagiarizing an entire text. This includes purchasing an essay or turning in an assignment completed by someone else.
  • Patchwork or mosaic plagiarism means copying phrases, passages, and ideas from different sources and compiling them into a new text.
  • Incremental plagiarism means inserting a small amount of plagiarized content in a mostly original text.
  • Self-plagiarism means recycling your own previous work that you’ve already submitted or published.

Although text is the most common source of plagiarism, it’s also possible to plagiarize things like images, data, music, and art. Any time you’re using something someone else created, you must give credit to the source.

Deliberate vs accidental plagiarism

You’ve probably heard stories about deliberate plagiarism: from a classmate turning in a paper they didn’t write to a corporation using an online creator’s design without permission.

However, plagiarism often occurs by accident. In academic writing, it’s easier than you may think to commit accidental plagiarism. Some common examples include:

  • Forgetting to use quotation marks for a quote
  • Paraphrasing too closely to the original text (e.g. just switching out a few synonyms)
  • Mentioning an idea that you read somewhere without citing it
  • Including the wrong information in a citation
  • Not including a complete reference list at the end of your paper

Even if done by accident, it’s still considered plagiarism, and can have serious consequences.

Why is plagiarism wrong?

Imitation is not, in fact, the greatest form of flattery. Plagiarism is wrong because it doesn’t give credit where credit is due—to the person or entity that originally created the work.

For students and academics

Plagiarism is a form of academic dishonesty. Whether you’re a student submitting a paper for a class or a researcher submitting to a journal, it’s expected that the work you submit is your own. Getting credit for work you haven’t done impacts your learning and misleads your readers.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use others’ work. Drawing on existing ideas and research is a key part of academic writing. But it’s important to clearly distinguish your own words and ideas from those of your sources.

This not only gives proper credit to the works you referenced, but also helps your readers track where your ideas came from and verify the evidence for themselves.

In the arts and creative industries

For those making visual art, music, or other types of creative work, plagiarism is often seen as a type of theft. Publishing or selling something that you didn’t create means depriving the original creator of income and recognition for their work.

All artists and creators have inspirations, and much of the world’s rich cultural legacy has been built from these inspirations. If you find that you’ve been really inspired by a particular body of work, give appropriate credit to the original creator.

Consequences of plagiarism

Depending on the context, the consequences of plagiarism range from failing an assignment to serious legal trouble.

If you’re a student submitting work that you don’t intend to publish, there likely will not be legal ramifications for plagiarism. However, it can have serious consequences for your education, from a failing grade to academic probation or expulsion.

If you are seeking to publish your work, plagiarism can damage your reputation and land you in legal hot water. Not giving the original artist or creator credit could lead to loss of gainful income or other financial ramifications for them. Stealing intellectual property is against the law if it’s copyrighted, and often has legal implications even if it isn’t.

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Avoid plagiarism by quoting, paraphrasing, and citing

The most surefire way to avoid plagiarism is to always cite your sources. But you also need to make sure to properly integrate them into your text by either quoting or paraphrasing.

Let’s say you’re writing a research paper on human evolution and the origins of play. You’ve found a great article in Smithsonian Magazine, “Five Ways Humans Evolved to Be Athletes,” and you want to cite evidence from a specific paragraph of the article. How you can use this source without accidentally plagiarizing?

Avoiding plagiarism when paraphrasing

When you want to express an idea or information from a source, paraphrase or summarize it.

Original text
“The generally accepted theory for the evolutionary origins of play is that it allows children to learn actions and tasks that they will need to master as adults. In hunter-gatherer populations, games that help children develop accuracy, power, and hand-eye coordination are useful practice for hunting.” (Goldfield, 2021)

Simply changing a few words or using a synonym tool is not correct paraphrasing. In fact, you may unintentionally change the meaning of the source. To show you’ve fully understood the material, explain the author’s key point entirely in your own words, and make sure to cite the source.

Paraphrased badly
The commonly believed hypothesis for the evolutionary beginnings of play is that it enables kids to learn activities and things that they will need to conquer later. In hunter-gatherer populations, pastimes that assist children develop exactness, strength, and hand-eye coordination are handy practice for hunting.
Paraphrased well
Experts believe that play has an evolutionary function. According to Goldfield (2021), play provided hunter-gatherer children with the opportunity to start learning skills that they would need in order to survive to adulthood.

Avoiding plagiarism when quoting

When you want to include an exact phrase, sentence or passage from a source, use a quotation.

That means you need to place quotation marks around any text that is copied directly from the source. Be sure to introduce each quote in your own words, and avoid using standalone quotations as full sentences.

Quoted incorrectly
Experts believe that play allows children to learn actions and tasks that they will need to master as adults. For example, games helped hunter-gatherer children develop accuracy, power, and hand-eye coordination as useful practice for hunting.
Quoted correctly
Experts believe that play “allows children to learn actions and tasks that they will need to master as adults”; for example, games helped hunter-gatherer children “develop accuracy, power, and hand-eye coordination” as “useful practice for hunting” (Goldfield, 2021).

Do I need to cite every piece of information?

Some information is considered common knowledge, which means it doesn’t need to be cited. Common knowledge is information that you didn’t learn from a particular source, but that is widely known and easily verified.

For example, if you state that Washington, D.C. is the capital city of the United States, or that the Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rainforest, no citation is required.

However, if you’re not sure whether something is common knowledge, it’s usually safest to cite the source.

Real-life examples of plagiarism

There are many relevant examples of plagiarism in different industries, from pop culture to academia and public speaking.

Plagiarism in academic settings is not just limited to words. Using the datasets or research findings of others is also considered plagiarism.

In 2006, the Brookings Institute accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of having plagiarized 80% of his economics dissertation from a paper published by the University of Pittsburgh a few decades earlier.

Dissertation plagiarism committed by other famous politicians, such as former Senator John Walsh, former German Defense Secretary Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, and former Hungarian President Pal Schmitt, led to their resignations and their degrees being revoked.

Source: CNN

Reusing or copying existing materials has been a big part of many types of art. However, it is still possible to plagiarize art.

In 1966, famous Pop Art artist Andy Warhol was sued by photographer Patricia Caulfield, who claimed unauthorized use of one of her photographs. Warhol had seen her photo of hibiscus flowers in the 1964 issue of Modern Photography, and used it for his silkscreen work Flowers.

While Warhol’s team argued that this was “fair use”, a judge determined that Warhol had, in fact, plagiarized the photo. This led to enduring reputation costs and a large financial settlement.

Source: Garden Collage

Many political speeches revolve around similar themes, but while it is natural to draw inspiration from previous speeches, paraphrasing too closely is considered plagiarism.

In 2016, a speech Melania Trump gave at the Republican National Convention was found to have copied several paragraphs almost-verbatim from a speech Michelle Obama gave at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. While her staff claimed that she had incorporated “fragments of others’ speeches that reflected her own thinking”, she was widely considered to have plagiarized.

Joe Biden was found to have committed similar plagiarism in a speech he gave during the 1988 presidential campaign, paraphrasing a speech by Welsh politician Neil Kinnock too closely.

Source: CNN

While technically no one owns a chord progression or particular combination of sounds, plagiarism in the music industry is a common accusation.

In 2018, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the 2013 hit song “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams infringed on the copyright of the song “Got to Give it Up” by the late Marvin Gaye. The Gaye family was awarded over $5 million in damages as well as 50% of the royalties moving forward.

This sets a precedent that new music must be different in both style and substance from previously-copyrighted songs. Other hit artists, such as Sam Smith, George Harrison, and Olivia Rodrigo, have faced similar consequences.

Source: ABC News

How is plagiarism detected?

Your professor or audience may be able to detect plagiarism if the formatting, style, or tone of your content changes abruptly or seems inconsistent. If your content looks or sounds familiar, a simple Google search may be all it takes.

Most academic institutions utilize some sort of plagiarism checker tool to make sure submitted content is original. If your content is too similar to content found by the checker, you may be suspected of plagiarism.

If you’re worried about accidental plagiarism, consider running your content through a plagiarism checker yourself prior to submission.

How plagiarism checkers work

Online plagiarism checkers work in a similar way to the ones that universities use. You upload your document and the checker scans it, checking for any similarities to websites, journals, or other published sources within their database.

After the scan is complete, the checker shows you similarities it found between your text and the content in its database, often in the form of a percentage. You can then scroll through, adding quotations or citations if needed.

The accuracy of the results depend on the size of the database and the technology’s capabilities.

Choosing an online plagiarism checker

There are many plagiarism checker tools on the market, and they vary in service provision and quality. The biggest differentiating factor between plagiarism checkers is the free, “freemium”, and paid versions.

  • Most free checkers will only detect directly copied-and-pasted content. If plagiarized content has even been slightly tweaked, these checkers will likely not detect it.
  • “Freemium” checkers appear to be free at first glance, but have a lot of add-ons and features that are paid, making it unlikely that you will get everything you need for free.
  • Paid checkers have access to larger databases, and often have the ability to detect similarities in paraphrased content as well. Some paid checkers are subscription models, but there are also pay-per-use options that give you more flexibility.

Trustworthiness of plagiarism checkers

Plagiarism checkers also vary in terms of privacy and confidentiality. When choosing a plagiarism checker, make sure that you read the fine print.

Some checkers, such as Scribbr’s Plagiarism Checker, have a detailed privacy policy, and commit to never sharing your data. Others upload your data to an internal content database or share it with third parties.

Free lecture slides

Are you a teacher or professor who would like to educate your students about plagiarism? You can download our free lecture slides, available for Google Slides and Microsoft PowerPoint.

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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 whether you’ve done it before.

As an academic or professional, plagiarizing seriously damages your reputation. You might also lose your research funding and/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 types 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.  

Can you plagiarize your own work?

Although it sounds contradictory, you can indeed plagiarize your own work. This is called self-plagiarism. Self-plagiarism goes against the expectations of the reader that the paper you submitted is new and original.

You can plagiarize yourself by, for instance:

  • Submitting a document you previously submitted for a different course
  • Using ideas or data from a previous paper without correctly citing yourself as the source

Although self-plagiarism is often unintentional, it can have serious consequences. Be sure to cite your previous work or discuss the decision to use your old paper with your professor.

Are plagiarism checkers accurate?

The accuracy depends on the plagiarism checker you use. Scribbr is the most accurate plagiarism checker. Many free plagiarism checkers fail to detect all plagiarism or falsely flag text as plagiarism.

Take a look at this comparison of free and paid plagiarism checkers for students to find the most accurate plagiarism checker.

The accuracy is determined by two factors: the algorithm (which recognizes the plagiarism) and the size of the database (with which your document is compared).

Size of the database

Many free plagiarism checkers only check your paper against websites – not against books, journals or papers previously submitted by other students. Therefore, these plagiarism checkers are not very accurate, as they miss a lot of plagiarism.

Algorithm

Most plagiarism checkers are only able to detect “direct plagiarism”, or instances where the sentences are exactly the same as in the original source. However, a good plagiarism checker is also able to detect “patchwork plagiarism” (sentences where some words are changed or synonyms are used).

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