Determining what is Plagiarism?

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If your teachers warn you against plagiarizing, but you find yourself asking “what does it mean to plagiarize?” keep reading!

This guide will help you understand what plagiarism is.

Guide Overview

The definition of plagiarism

What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism means taking credit for someone else’s work. The work can be writing, speech, video, image, drawing, or graph, although this guide will usually refer to it as writing.

Plagiarism refers to using someone else’s work and passing it off as your own.


You hear a poem and you write it down because it made you swoon. Then, you submit it as a writing assignment. If you give it to your teacher, your teacher is going to assume you wrote it, right?

But… doesn’t that sound like stealing? And like lying? You took someone else’s work, and pretended that it was yours.

That’s plagiarism.

And it is stealing and lying. That’s why in the United States (as well as other countries, although this guide will focus on the US), plagiarism is considered a serious offense with serious consequences.

Unsure if you may be plagiarizing? Try this thought tree and read on to understand how plagiarism can happen.

What is Plagiarism? Plagiarism Infographic by EasyBibDownload our Plagiarism Infographic for future reference.

Intellectual property

Let’s say someone takes your car without your permission. That’s stealing right? Now, instead of something big and expensive, what if someone takes something small and cheap without your permission, like your new pack of gum? Is that still stealing?

Of course!

Now, what if someone takes something of yours that you can’t see or touch?

For example:

In your philosophy class, you have to argue whether it’s better to be a vegetarian and not eat meat, no matter where the food comes from, or whether it’s better to eat local foods, no matter if it’s meat or vegetables.

You’re talking to your classmate about the assignment, which the instructor is going to discuss tomorrow. You’ve given it a lot of thought and you’ve decided to argue for local food.

You share your ideas with your classmate and she tells you those are great arguments. The next day in class, the teacher asks if anyone wants to argue for local food – and your classmate raises her hand.

And then she tells the instructor all your ideas.

How would you feel?

Would you feel like something had been stolen from you? But what exactly was stolen? Your classmate didn’t snatch anything out of your hands. She didn’t slip anything into her pocket. What she took was your intellectual property. And even if you can’t see it or touch it, it still exists.

Intellectual property is work that is the result of someone’s creativity and intellect.

This is why we say that plagiarism can include things like copying from a speech, or a photograph, or a cartoon, or a video. Someone thought of an idea, and worked to bring that idea to life in writing, speech, or image.

Now, ideas cannot be stolen. There is no protection of ideas; there is only the protection of the expression of those ideas. What this means is that you cannot claim someone stole your idea if you did not talk about it, write about it, or somehow share that idea. Because how could someone steal what’s in your head if you don’t express it?

So now we can answer “what is plagiarism?” by saying it means stealing someone’s intellectual property.

Knowledge as a continual conversation

When you think about knowledge, what comes to mind? Ancient Greek philosophers? Piles of textbooks? Things your teachers talk about in class with a PowerPoint? Do you think of knowledge as a thing that exists? Or as something that is constantly created?

In American academics, the idea of knowledge is that it is a continual conversation that started when homo sapiens created language, and continues until now. It might feel like humanity already knows everything there is to know, but we are learning new things every day.

You, as a student, have an opportunity to add to that knowledge. How? Let’s look at how you write a research paper:

In writing, you are expected to do research before you write a paper. Then, you’re expected to incorporate that research into your own work. Research means reading what others have written about a particular topic.

So… how do you include what others have written about a topic into your own work? Isn’t that plagiarism?

If you include those ideas from your research and you don’t tell your reader where they came from, then yes, that is plagiarizing. But if you cite your sources (which means telling the reader where information came from), then you’re safe!

You can absolutely write a research paper without plagiarizing! Now, a research paper isn’t only writing about what others have written on a topic. You need to include some of your own ideas.

Where do those ideas come from?

They come from your reaction to what you’ve read: Your interpretation of the information, any insights you gained, areas where you agree or disagree (and why). What you contribute to the continual conversation of knowledge doesn’t have to be earth-shattering to be a genuine contribution.

Instances of plagiarizing

Now that we’ve talked about what plagiarism means, let’s examine what it might look like.

What is plagiarizing? Buying a paper

It could be paying someone to write a paper for you. Yes, if you go to a store and you buy a pair of shoes, they are your shoes. However, that doesn’t mean you get to go around and say, “I made these shoes!”

No, you didn’t.

The same holds true for buying an essay. You paid for it, it’s yours. So, you didn’t steal it. However, if you submit it as if it were your own, you’re still lying. That means you are still plagiarizing.

What is plagiarizing? Using someone else’s work

It could be using someone else’s essay. It could be an essay an older classmate wrote a year ago, on the same topic you chose. Or, it could be an essay you found online that has some of the ideas you had in mind.

If you didn’t write it, if you didn’t do the work of bringing the ideas to life, then it’s not your writing. It’s plagiarism.

What is plagiarizing? Using a few passages from another’s work

It could be using parts of other work in your work. You aren’t stealing someone’s paper. You’re just borrowing a few paragraphs.

Hold it. It doesn’t have to be an entire paper. It can be a few paragraphs, or a few sentences, or just one sentence, or even part of a sentence. The ideas you are taking aren’t yours. You did not put those words in that order to explain the idea. The work isn’t yours. This is still plagiarism.

What is plagiarizing? Paraphrasing without a citation

Ah ha! What if you don’t use someone’s words? What if you take their ideas and change the words and move them around? Now they’re your own words.

Yes, they’re your own words, but based on someone else’s words and ideas. What you did is paraphrase, which is a great thing to do, but if you don’t make it clear that the idea came from someone else, you are still plagiarizing.

Remember: you can’t steal an idea unless it has been expressed. But if someone already wrote about it, they have expressed that idea. So intellectual property isn’t just those exact words, but the idea behind those words.

What is plagiarizing? Quoting without a citation

If you do use a writer’s exact words, you need to put quotation marks around them. It is important to acknowledge someone’s exact words. If you changed them a little, gave them your own spin, remember: that’s paraphrasing, but you still need to give the original writer credit for the idea.

Why is it a big deal to show exact words? Well, if you paraphrase (give the writer’s idea but using your own words), you have put your interpretation into it. With the words you choose, with the order you put them in, you are making adjustments to the writer’s original idea. What if you changed the meaning a little? Not on purpose or anything, but it’s still not exactly what the writer meant.

So, if you are repeating exactly what the writer wrote, use quotation marks.

What is plagiarizing? Accidental plagiarism

You’ve learned about plagiarism. You’re working hard to make sure you give credit to the original writers if you’re using their ideas for your argument. Let’s say you accidentally forget to cite somewhere.

This is also plagiarism.

If you miss a citation, even by accident, you are still using someone else’s work without giving them credit.

How do you protect yourself against this kind of plagiarism? Take careful notes during your research and make sure you have a record of every piece of information that came from somewhere.

What is plagiarizing? Citing the wrong sources

What if you use the wrong sources? Writer A said this, but you cited it as Writer B. Oops… but can you see that Writer A is still not getting credit for their work?

This is another accident, but it is still plagiarism. Be careful when you take your research notes!

What is plagiarizing? Self-plagiarizing

This is the last one, but it’s a doozy. If you use something you have written and submitted it, you cannot use it again. If you do submit it somewhere else, you would be plagiarizing yourself.

Think about it like this: plagiarism means taking credit for someone else’s work, right? If you write an awesome paper for psych class, and then you use it (or part of it) for lit class, you are taking credit you have already earned, and you’re trying to get credit for it again. That’s double-dipping and it’s not allowed!

Possible consequences of plagiarism

If you are caught plagiarizing, whether on purpose or by accident, you could face serious consequences.

If you’re a student, you might get a failing grade – on the assignment or in the class. You might be suspended or expelled from school. Plagiarism is a serious academic offense.

For professionals, it could be even worse. A professional caught plagiarizing would suffer a blow to their credibility and their career. Plagiarism damages trust and integrity. Why should the public believe someone who stole another’s intellectual property and lied about it?

That’s why citing your sources is so important.

Cite your sources

Remember: you are allowed to use other writers’ ideas and words. In fact, that continual conversation to advance knowledge couldn’t happen without it.

But in order not to plagiarize, you need to know the magical secret: Cite your sources.

Citing your sources means giving credit to the writer of those words/ideas. If plagiarism is using someone’s work without giving them credit, then all you have to do to not plagiarize is… give them credit!

Remember the example about your philosophy class assignment, arguing for vegetarian food versus local food?

What if, after your classmate told the instructor all of your ideas, she pointed to you and told the class, “Those were his ideas.” Would you feel better? What a difference it would make to get credit for your ideas! That’s what citing your sources does.

Citing your sources is also important for your readers.

  • To show you did research – it gives legitimacy and validity to your argument
  • To show where your information comes from – use reliable sources
  • So your readers can check the sources if there are questions – additional info
  • To point your readers to useful sources – if they want to dig deeper

If you’re looking for help citing your sources or avoiding plagiarism, check out EasyBib citing and writing tools linked here!

Key takeaways

  • Plagiarism is stealing someone’s intellectual property
  • Intellectual property refers to ideas created by human intellect and turned into words, speech, images, designs, videos, or graphs
  • Plagiarism is a serious offense and can carry serious consequences
  • Citing your sources is the secret to avoiding plagiarism

Published October 28, 2020.

By Halina Stolar. Halina has a master’s degree in teaching and taught English as a Second Language and writing for almost 15 years overseas. She now works as a freelance writer, and geeks out over grammar for fun.

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