Plagiarism is stealing other people’s words and ideas and passing them off as your own.

Plagiarism is a serious offense. At the university level it will usually get you an F on your assignment. If you plagiarize repeatedly you may even get kicked out of the institution.

Outside the academy, the penalties vary. Being caught plagiarizing certainly hurts your reputation and you might lose your job.

But you shouldn’t obey the law just to avoid getting caught. If you value original thought, personal integrity, and scholarly research, then you will naturally want to avoid plagiarism. That’s why it’s important to cite your sources and know how to integrate quotations properly.

Common causes

You might think that you would never plagiarize. However, many plagiarism cases are the result of negligence, ignorance, or a lack of self-confidence. Here are some reasons why even good students sometimes plagiarize:

  • Last minute panic
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Misunderstanding what constitutes plagiarism
  • Sloppy note taking
  • Slavishly copying someone’s ideas, often in the same order
  • Working on an assignment with others and handing in similar papers
  • Citing sources in the bibliography, but not in the paper itself

Yet even when plagiarism is inadvertent and unintended, ignorance is no excuse. You need to cite your sources and present your own argument.


Sometimes it’s hard to know if you’re plagiarizing. This is especially the case when you are paraphrasing the ideas of others.

A paraphrase is when you put someone else’s ideas in your own words and provide only a citation (so no quotation marks).

Let’s say you’ve read the following passage about the Aztec ruler Montezuma, and you would like to borrow some ideas:

Motecuhzoma may have been elected tlatoani [Aztec ruler], but his coronation awaited the successful conduct of a war. He decided to wage his coronation war against the cities of Nopallan and Icpatepec. . . . One day into the march, Motecuhzoma ordered the Cihuacoatl [senior advisor] to return to Tenochtitlan and execute all the tutors of his children and all the court ladies attendant upon his wives and concubines. . . .In these acts, he set the tone for his reign.  He instilled fear with sudden and inexplicable executions, tested the loyalty of his ministers, and constantly checked to see if orders had been executed promptly. (29)

Source: Tsouras, Peter G. Montezuma: Warlord of the Aztecs. Potomac, 2005.

An inadequate paraphrase is one where you retain many of the original words and phrases:

The tone of Motecuhzoma’s reign was one of fear and terror. For example, shortly after his coronation Motecuhzoma ordered the Cihuacoatl to execute his children’s tutors and the court ladies who accompanied his wives and concubines (Tsouras 29).

This paraphrase is too close to the original, and you should just use a quotation instead.

Of course, you are allowed to repeat key words (reign, fear, Cihuacoatl, etc.), but you should not copy an entire phrase (Motecuhzoma ordered the Cihuacoatl), and you should as much as possible change the wording.

Citing Common Facts

There is a limit to what needs to be cited. You do not need to provide a source for information that is widely known.

Here are some examples of the kinds of things that do not need citation:

  • famous dates (e.g., the year Columbus sailed the ocean blue)
  • well known facts (e.g., the atomic mass of Cadmium)
  • the main outlines of historical events (e.g., the Protestant Reformation)
  • proverbs and maxims (e.g., don’t look a gift horse in the mouth)

It can of course be difficult to know whether a fact is well known, especially if you are not familiar with the subject matter. One way to check is to consider whether multiple sources share the same information without providing any citation. That’s usually a good indication that you’re dealing with a universally acknowledged fact.

For example, you don’t need a source if you’re claiming that spiders have eight legs or that the mountain gorilla is in danger of extinction.

On the other hand, many apparent facts can be contested. Few sources, for instance, agree about the number of casualties in World War I or about the approximate age of the earth. In fact, almost any time you’re dealing with statistics you should provide a citation.

Finally, if you are writing about literature, there is no need to quote or paraphrase when you’re summarizing the plot of a novel or short story. You should be able to come up with a plot summary yourself.

Defining Originality

Students often voice their frustration with research by saying, but I didn’t know anything about this topic before I began researching it. So how can I avoid plagiarizing?

This is a valid objection. Students may feel they have no original ideas and are just regurgitating material from various sources.

Fortunately, originality is largely defined by how you interact with the information, not by how much you knew at the start.

Even if you go into a project with very little knowledge, as soon as you start reading various books and articles you will begin to form an opinion. So don’t read passively. Evaluate your sources, crosscheck supposed facts, and synthesize various ideas. In this way you will gradually form your own argument and avoid plagiarism.

It’s quite common for undergraduate research papers to be a patchwork of quotations and paraphrases, but it’s the careful selection and interpretation of the evidence that makes the essay original.

Advice to Instructors

Instructors may find it difficult to know how to deal with student excuses, so here is some advice for them. (Students may also find it interesting to know their instructor’s perspective.)

Any experienced instructor has heard all the excuses. Here are just a few examples of what students might say:

I did a similar paper for a different class and when I went back to my old notes I didn’t realize that they contained some words and phrases that were direct quotations.

I asked my brother for some help with editing and he added the plagiarized passages. He is not a university student, you know.

I was tired. I’m overwhelmed with assignments, I have a full time job, and my grandmother is in the hospital. I guess I made a mistake, but I hope you will understand.

In my culture plagiarism is acceptable. It’s customary to honour wise people by repeating their ideas.

How can instructors tell if an excuse has merit? While it’s important to be sympathetic (and it doesn’t hurt to have a Kleenex box handy), the focus should stay on the assignment, and less on the life circumstances that may have been a factor. At the beginning of the course, the instructor should have spelled out clearly what constitutes plagiarism is, and what the penalties are. That way the student cannot claim ignorance, and both parties have a clear reference point.

The instructor should also know the institution’s rules inside and out. Too often instructors are much more draconian than the rules themselves. If an essay has a few phrases that are plagiarized, but the rest of the paper has adequate citation, it’s hardly fair to assign an F to the assignment. It would be better to assign a smaller penalty (e.g., a 10% deduction). The instructor thus has the duty to know the rules and to apply them generously in favour of the student.

Doing so will make most grade appeals unnecessary. In fact, instructors have to be absolutely sure that a passage is plagiarized before they can act. Noting that a few ideas are broadly similar will not be enough in the case of an appeal. The onus is therefore on the instructor to provide adequate proof of plagiarism (highlighted phrases, URLs of the original web pages, etc.). It’s also a good idea to keep a photocopy of the assignment when returning it to the student.

But above all the instructor has a responsibility to design assignments that are difficult to plagiarize. If a student can google the topic and immediately find an entire essay on the same question, then the instructor is partly to blame.

An easy solution is to assign comparative topics (then at least the student would have to plagiarize from multiple sources and somehow piece them together). However, there are often better approaches. Try to assign topics for which there may be academic sources, but relatively few popular web pages. Ask the students to approach the subject from an unusual angle. Be specific about which secondary sources the students must interact with.

If the assignment is constructed properly in the first place, then plagiarism will at best be sporadic and minor, and likely not in the student’s best interest. Instructors who are proactive will have fewer plagiarism cases and fewer appeals.

A Culture of Plagiarism

Why is plagiarism rampant across university campuses? Some of it has to do with the way in which we access information. Don’t know the answer to a question? Just google it! We are a bit like Pavlov’s dogs that way.

The same behaviour affects how we research. In high school, students are often not taught adequate research skills, and so they look everything up online.

This culture of googling has a detrimental effect on students’ self-confidence. Instead of thinking for themselves, students begin most assignments by seeing what other people have to say.

As a society we have a duty to encourage students to believe in themselves, to trust that they can be great independent thinkers. That’s the only way to deal with plagiarism properly.