Plagiarism in college is a form of academic dishonesty that includes acts such as (1.) presenting any other person’s work as one’s own work, (2.) reproducing another’s ideas, theories, information, syntax, or diction without giving proper credit, (3.) incorrectly citing another’s work, or (4.) reusing your own work submitted in other classes. The most common conceptualization of plagiarism is a student’s copying writing off of a Website to fill out an essay for class, or even turning in an entire essay written by someone else. But there are other and subtler forms, as discussed below.

Also keep in mind that all college writing is subject to the principles of plagiarism, whether that means a full essay or paper, or writing on a test or exam, or writing on an exercise or worksheet, even writing in a discussion board or e-mail.

Plagiarism is more than a weakness or error in college writing: it is an academic offense. Most institutions treat it as a breach of student conduct with punishments enacted both by the professor and by the college separately. In other words, in college plagiarism is considered unacceptable, and as a student you can expect that any instance of plagiarism—whether on essays, homework, discussion forums, even bonus work—will be met with the harshest penalties available. Such penalties include failure of the assignment, failure of the course, and academic suspension.

Intentional and Accidental Plagiarism

Sometimes a writer plagiarizes work on purpose—for instance, by finding or purchasing an essay on a website and submitting it as original course work. In other cases, a writer may commit accidental plagiarism due to carelessness, haste, or misunderstanding. To avoid unintentional plagiarism, follow these guidelines:

  • Understand what types of information must be cited.
  • Understand the nuances of plagiarism.
  • Keep source materials and notes carefully organized.
  • Follow guidelines for summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting sources.

When to Cite

Any idea, statement, or fact taken from a source must be cited, in both in the text of your essay and on the Works Cited page. Whether you are quoting, paraphrasing, or even summarizing, you must fully cite the source.

Full citation of a source means listing the author’s name in the text of the essay, as well as the page number the cited material appears on in the original source (only if the source has page numbers). But full citation also means making the distinction between your words/ideas and the source’s as clear as possible for readers. Quotation marks and tags help with this distinction when quoting, but for paraphrasing and summary, you must use explanations–however brief–to distinguish your words and ideas from the source’s.

Of course, full citation also requires entries on the Works Cited page that include all of the vital publication information of the source. See the section MLA Citation for more information.

The only exceptions are facts or general statements that are common knowledge and typically have no single, original source to identify (although they might appear in hundreds or thousands of sources). For example, a writer would not need to cite the statement that most breads, pastas, and cereals are high in carbohydrates; this is widely known. However, if a writer explained in detail the differences among the chemical structures of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, especially if a source is consulted, a citation would be necessary.

As a general guide to common knowledge, you might not have to cite a source if you know the fact or idea without having to look it up. But if you looked up the fact or idea–even just to double-check your knowledge–you should definitely cite the source you used. When in doubt, cite.

The Nuances of Plagiarism

As noted above, there are subtler forms of plagiarism than merely copying writing or using ideas and sources without citation.

One such subtle form of plagiarism is bad or weak paraphrasing or summarizing, especially when the newly worded idea is expressed in ways too close to the original. Even if the source is technically cited, bad paraphrasing or summarizing can still constitute a subtle form of plagiarism. See the following for an example, which begins with an excerpt from “Supernatural Horror in Literature” by H.P. Lovecraft:


“The appeal of the spectrally macabre [in literature] is generally narrow because it demands from the reader a certain degree of imagination and a capacity for detachment from everyday life.”


Bad Paraphrasis (a kind of plagiarism):

According to H.P. Lovecraft, the attraction of the ghostly gruesome in stories is typically small because it requires from the audience a level of creativity and an ability to disconnect from normal reality.


Good Paraphrasis:

H.P. Lovecraft thought that horror stories aren’t as popular as other types because horror readers need to be able to check out of the real world and drift away into their own strange thoughts.

In the example above of bad paraphrasis, even though the original author was named, the newly worded sentence follows the exact same sentence structure and word order; it simply uses synonyms for each ideas in the exact same way as the original. This would be inacceptable paraphrasis and a form of plagiarism.

But the root cause of this error is a misunderstanding of paraphrasing. You should paraphrase only when you need to re-word the original idea in order to better fit your purpose, subject, or audience. The good example of paraphrasis above re-words the original in a way that junior-high students could more easily understand. It explains the same idea in a different way, which makes it good and not at all plagiarism, and this strength is much easier to achieve when you have a real reason to paraphrase. The same goes for summary: only use it when you legitimately need to change the way the ideas are worded. If you don’t need to change the wording, rely on direct quotation, with full citation of course.

As for other forms of subtle plagiarism, which can’t all be adequately enumerated, keep in mind that the truest concept of plagiarism is this: academic dishonesty in writing. Knowing what counts as academically dishonest requires you to understand this vital principle in college: all of your writing in your classes is supposed to comprise only your own original thoughts and expressions (except that which is fully cited) created only for that assignment at that time. Any veering away from this is some kind of plagiarism.

For example, if someone else helps you with your essay by telling you what you should say in it, that would be plagiarism because that wouldn’t be your own original thought or expression. Even if you re-use your own essay from another course to turn in for a different course, that would be plagiarism because you wouldn’t be creating the essay only for that assignment at that time. In short, unless you fully cite a source, everything you write should be your own thoughts and expressions created just for the immediate writing assignment.

Overuse of Source Material

The legitimate use of source material is to support and develop your own ideas. But you must keep the use of source material disciplined so that it remains purely supportive. Quoting another’s work at excessive length, to the extent that large sections of the writing are unoriginal, is not legitimate use and is instead the overuse of source material.

Notice the overuse of the source material in the following student example:

Overuse of Source Material

Heinz (2009) found that “subjects in the low-carbohydrate group (30% carbohydrates; 40% protein, 30% fat) had a mean weight loss of 10 kg (22 lbs) over a 4-month period.” These results were “noticeably better than results for subjects on a low-fat diet (45% carbohydrates, 35% protein, 20% fat)” whose average weight loss was only “7 kg (15.4 lbs) in the same period.” From this, it can be concluded that “low-carbohydrate diets obtain more rapid results.” Other researchers agree that “at least in the short term, patients following low-carbohydrate diets enjoy greater success” than those who follow alternative plans (Johnson & Crowe 2010).


Even though the student is citing the source correctly, the quotations take over the discussion, which is no longer truly the student’s. It has become a mere collage of the original source, which is overuse. Now see a better use of source material, which is achieved by a more reasonable balance of quotation, paraphrasis, summary, and original observation, as well as a more thoughtful organization including a topic sentence and a conclusion:

Better Use of Source Material

Low-carbohydrate diets may indeed be superior to other diet plans for short-term weight loss. In a study comparing low-carbohydrate diets and low-fat diets, Heinz (2009) found that subjects who followed a low-carbohydrate plan (30% of total calories) for 4 months lost, on average, about 3 kilograms more than subjects who followed a low-fat diet for the same time. Heinz concluded that these plans yield quick results, an idea supported by a similar study conducted by Johnson and Crowe (2010). What remains to be seen, however, is whether this initial success can be sustained for longer periods.



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The Writing Textbook Copyright © 2021 by Josh Woods, editor and contributor, as well as an unnamed author (by request from the original publisher), and other authors named separately is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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