Consequences of Mild, Moderate, & Severe Plagiarism

If you use someone else’s words or ideas without properly crediting them, you could be committing plagiarism. The consequences of plagiarism vary based on the severity of the offense.

Consequences of mild, moderate, and severe plagiarism
Level of plagiarism Examples Likely consequence
Mild
  • Source cited in text but left out of reference list
  • Quotation marks omitted around a quote
Grade penalty or automatic zero
Moderate
  • Text copied from a source with a few words changed
  • Source paraphrased without citation
Failing grade on course
Severe
  • Patchwork of different texts passed off as original
  • Paper written by someone else
Academic probation or expulsion

Plagiarism can also have serious consequences in high school and during the college application process. Many high schools treat plagiarism the same way colleges do, and admissions officers will typically disregard your application if they find you’ve plagiarized any part of it.

What colleges say about the consequences of plagiarism

Plagiarism in college has serious consequences, even when committed by accident. You can usually find the details of your institution’s plagiarism policy and examples of plagiarism in your code of conduct. If you’re unsure about the specifics, ask your instructor.

Some examples from different institutions are shown below.

“Academic Integrity Code violations are treated very seriously. The misperceived short-term gain from these acts is not worth the long-term consequences of the penalty.

“Sanctions for code violations include loss of credit for the assignment, a failing grade for the course, a permanent notation on the transcript, and dismissal from the university. Second offenses will result in suspension or dismissal from the university.”

Source: American University

“While it is recognized that scholarly work often involves reference to the ideas, data and conclusions of other scholars, intellectual honesty requires that such references be explicitly and clearly noted. Plagiarism is a serious academic offence.”

Source: University of Calgary

“Students accused of academic misconduct may not change registration in the course (e.g., drop the course, change grading option to P/F) while the case is pending, or if a finding of academic misconduct has been made. While the case is being investigated and/or adjudicated, the presumption of innocence means that the student may continue to attend class and receive grades. During that time, however, the student may not receive credit for the course in which the alleged misconduct occurred and may not be graduated.”

Source: University of Michigan

“An instructor who determines that a student has cheated or plagiarized has a range of many options, which may be as severe as giving the student a failing grade for the course. Furthermore, the student may face other penalties as stated in the college’s Student Conduct Policy. Finally, it must be understood that a student who knowingly aids in another student’s cheating e.g., permitting the other student to copy a paper or examination question, is as guilty as the other of the offense.”

Source: Cerro Coso Community College

Why is plagiarism so serious?

You might wonder why universities and other organizations impose such serious consequences for plagiarism, even when it’s accidental.

Plagiarism amounts to theft, and there are good reasons for institutions (and for you!) to take it seriously. Plagiarism:

  • Is dishonest: When done deliberately, plagiarism indicates that the person responsible is not honest about their work, which is a problem in any context.
  • Harms the person you’re plagiarizing: It’s easy to see why you wouldn’t want your writing stolen and passed off as someone else’s—especially in publishing.
  • Hinders the learning process: If you’re stealing words and ideas from others, your own creativity is not being tested, and you’re not learning.
  • Obscures the sources of ideas: All academic writing builds on the ideas of others, and it’s important that the reader can clearly trace where those ideas came from.
  • Results in bad writing: Whatever the quality of the text(s) you’re plagiarizing, a paper made up of a patchwork of different unacknowledged sources is usually a mess.

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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 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 plagiarism illegal?

Plagiarism has serious consequences, and can indeed be illegal in certain scenarios.

While most of the time plagiarism in an undergraduate setting is not illegal, plagiarism or self-plagiarism in a professional academic setting can lead to legal action, including copyright infringement and fraud. Many scholarly journals do not allow you to submit the same work to more than one journal, and if you do not credit a co-author, you could be legally defrauding them.

Even if you aren’t breaking the law, plagiarism can seriously impact your academic career. While the exact consequences of plagiarism vary by institution and severity, common consequences include: a lower grade, automatically failing a course, academic suspension or probation, or even expulsion.

Why is plagiarism wrong?

Plagiarism is a form of theft, since it involves taking the words and ideas of others and passing them off as your own. As such, it’s academically dishonest and can have serious consequences.

Plagiarism also hinders the learning process, obscuring the sources of your ideas and usually resulting in bad writing. Even if you could get away with it, plagiarism harms your own learning.

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.

What is self-plagiarism?

Self-plagiarism means recycling work that you’ve previously published or submitted as an assignment. It’s considered academic dishonesty to present something as brand new when you’ve already gotten credit and perhaps feedback for it in the past.

If you want to refer to ideas or data from previous work, be sure to cite yourself.

If you’re concerned that you may have self-plagiarized, Scribbr’s Self-Plagiarism Checker can help you turn in your paper with confidence. It compares your work to unpublished or private documents that you upload, so you can rest assured that you haven’t unintentionally plagiarized.

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Tegan George

Tegan is an American based in Amsterdam, with master's degrees in political science and education administration. While she is definitely a political scientist at heart, her experience working at universities led to a passion for making social science topics more approachable and exciting to students. A well-designed natural experiment is her favorite type of research, but she also loves qualitative methods of all varieties.