Understanding & Preventing Plagiarism Strategies & Resources for Students and Teachers


Students, particularly those in college, are expected to adhere to rigorous codes of conduct that stress academic integrity, including prohibitions against plagiarism. Steering clear of plagiarism, however, can be more difficult than it seems and the consequences can be severe. Fortunately, it’s a problem educators are devoting quite a bit of energy to, and there are new resources available to help students avoid the pitfalls of plagiarism. Read on to learn about practical preventative measures.

Meet the Expert

Matt Ashare is an adjunct professor of journalism and media studies in the department of communications at Randolph College, a private liberal arts college located in Lynchburg, Virginia, and formerly known as Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. He graduated from Wesleyan University, with a degree in history and has spent over two decades working in journalism, as a writer, an editor, and a cultural critic. In teaching classes on magazine and feature writing, and news reporting, and serving as faculty advisor to the Randolph College student newspaper The Sundial, he deals head-on with teaching students about the issues surrounding plagiarism in academia and in the real world of publishing.

158 Students Suspended from UC San Diego for Academic Code Violations Between 2012 and 2014.

According to the LA Times, more than 1,200 allegations were reported. Punishment included writing a reflective paper, attending an ethical skills seminar, or expulsion.

Two Students Expelled from University of Virginia Semester at Sea Program for Plagiarism in 2008.

The school’s single-sanction honor code subjects students to severe penalties after being found guilty of just one violation.

Plagiarism remains a pressing problem on college campuses. The stakes can be surprisingly high: intentional and even accidental plagiarism is considered a serious offence in academic and/or research settings. But what exactly is plagiarism? Why is plagiarism considered such a serious issue? And, how has online research tools and new digital technological assets changed the way students and academic institutions approach the problem? The following guide focuses on these central questions to explore the nature of this complicated subject. Drawing on expert advice and the most up-to-date research in the field, this guide looks at various strategies that can help students navigate the confusing terrain of scholarly attribution, including how to quote and paraphrase properly, cite from relevant texts accurately, and draw safely on primary and secondary source material without raising the red flag of plagiarism. It will also delve into some of the new online resources that are aiding students and faculty in the fight against plagiarism and offer step-by-step guidelines on how to recognize and avoid it.

Most college presidents (55%) say that plagiarism in students’ papers has increased over the past 10 years.
Among those who have seen an increase in plagiarism, 89% say computers and the Internet have played a major role.
Source: Pew Research Poll on the Digital Revolution and Higher Education, 2011

What Is Plagiarism? Intentional vs. Accidental

In theory, plagiarism is a fairly simple concept: it involves stealing the words and/or ideas of another without attribution or acknowledgment. In practice, however, there are a number of distinct aspects that constitute an act of plagiarism and that distinguish plagiarism from other kinds of academic violations. Individual schools, institutions, and disciplines may employ somewhat different definitions. Let’s look at a few common ways that plagiarism is formally defined by several authoritative

Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

The act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person.

Council of Writing Program Administrators:

In an instructional setting, plagiarism occurs when a writer deliberately uses someone else’s language, ideas, or other original material without acknowledging its source.

Indiana University Bloomington School of Education:

Plagiarism is defined as presenting someone else’s work, including the work of other students, as one’s own. Any ideas or materials taken from another source for either written or oral use must be fully acknowledged, unless the information is common knowledge.

Harvard College Writing Program Guide to Using Sources:

In academic writing, it is considered plagiarism to draw any idea or any language from someone else without adequately crediting that source in your paper. It doesn’t matter whether the source is a published author, another student, a Web site without clear authorship, a Web site that sells academic papers, or any other person: Taking credit for anyone else’s work is stealing, and it is unacceptable in all academic situations, whether you do it intentionally or by accident.

Purdue University Online Writing Lab:

Some actions can almost unquestionably be labeled plagiarism, such as buying, stealing, or borrowing a paper (including copying an entire paper or article from the Web); hiring someone to write your paper for you; and copying large sections of text from a source without quotation marks or proper citation. But then there are actions that are usually in more of a gray area, such as using the words of a source too closely when paraphrasing (where quotation marks should have been used) or building on someone’s ideas without citing their spoken or written work. Sometimes teachers suspecting students of plagiarism will consider the students’ intent, and whether it appeared the student was deliberately trying to make ideas of others appear to be his or her own. However, other teachers and administrators may not distinguish between deliberate and accidental plagiarism.

As one can see from the graduated nature of these definitions, plagiarism often isn’t as straightforward as it may at first seem and policies on plagiarism set forth by different professors, administrators, and institutions reflect this fact. The rapid growth of a new medium for communications and research — the Internet — has complicated matters to some degree. To illustrate, let’s start with the most basic, blatant example of plagiarism — what we’ll call “intentional appropriation.” Then, using a series of questions that any student should familiarize him or herself with, we’ll investigate the so-called gray areas, including something that’s come to be known as “patchwork writing.”

Intentional Appropriation: The Cardinal Sin of Plagiarism

In the introduction to their 2007 collection of critical essays, Culture, Identity and Technologies in the Star Wars Films, Carlo Silvio and Tony M. Vinci write, “Few popular filmic narratives have so captivated the public’s imagination and invited as much critical commentary as George Lucas’s Star Wars series. First release in May of 1977, Episode IV: A New Hope (then simply entitled Star Wars) quickly became the highest grossing film of all time as it redefined the cinematic use of special effects and ushered in a new era of the Hollywood blockbuster.”

Those two sentences contain some information that might be considered public knowledge: the fact that the first film came out in May of 1977 and that it became “the highest grossing film of all time.” But, they are unique in their formulation and they contain ideas and constructs that essentially “belong” to the authors, like the premise that Star Wars “redefined the cinematic use of special effects and ushered in a new era of the Hollywood blockbuster.” Even if you agree with the authors and, after reading those sentences, feel as if they’ve summed up your own opinion, using those sentences without quotation marks, and without explicitly crediting Silvio and Vinci, is plagiarism. In other words, you don’t have to steal the entire essay or even a complete paragraph: two sentences, copied from a text without attribution, and thus passed off as your own work, are enough to constitute plagiarism in its most basic form.

Accidental Plagiarism

In many colleges and universities, plagiarism is an academic violation that falls under purview of a larger honor code, which requires students to adhere to various standards of behavior.

Lying, cheating, and stealing are three of the elemental transgressions prohibited by an honor code. If we consider plagiarism to be a kind of academic theft of the words and ideas of another, which is how it is typically defined, then the implications of intentionally appropriating someone else’s work are obvious. Not only does it amount to stealing, but it’s also a kind of cheating, since the plagiarist is attempting to unfairly inflate his or her grade through an act of misrepresentation.

But what if a student meant to credit the original author? Let’s say you’re writing an essay about Star Wars for a film studies class or a class on modern mythologies; you come across the introduction to Culture, Identity and Technologies in the Star Wars Films; you quickly copy a paragraph or a couple of sentences from the introduction; and, as you rush to finish the paper on time, you simply forget to include a citation.

In such a case, while your intention was not to deceive, it’s still a case of plagiarism. However, lying and evidence of willful deception compound the offense. And, as the Purdue University Online Writing Lab guidelines point out, intent can be an important factor: Acting in good faith and coming clean about the “accidental” nature of the infraction–rather than denying the obvious–can be a mitigating factor when it comes to sanctions.

Academic Integrity and the
Consequences of Plagiarizing


Vice President Joe Biden took himself out of the running for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination when it surfaced that he’d been caught plagiarizing in law school 23 years earlier.

I tell my students that there are three ways to look at plagiarism and its potential ramifications. The first is that it amounts the law of the land in academia. It isn’t necessarily illegal to plagiarize, at least not in the criminal court system. But attending college is a privilege. All colleges and universities have an academic code of conduct, that covers plagiarism and other forms of cheating, and those that violate the code can face serious consequences. These vary from school to school, but they can include everything from failing an assignment or an entire class to suspension and/or expulsion, depending on the severity of the offense.

Secondly, it’s an insidious and often pointless form of cheating. When you plagiarize, you steal other people’s words and ideas, which cheapens the entire notion of academic integrity and intellectual honesty. It’s not fair to other students, who are presumably working hard within the rules, and it ultimately cheats the plagiarizer out of the opportunity to experience genuine intellectual growth. And, if you’re going to go through the trouble of finding good source material, why not take credit for your research efforts by providing a citation?


As he battles for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Senator Rand Paul has had to fight off accusations that he used plagiarized material in several speeches and in one of his books.

Another good reason to avoid plagiarism is that it’s embarrassing and can define a person’s reputation. One incidence of plagiarism on a college transcript is a reflection of who that person is and what they represent. That’s a lot to risk.

Identifying Plagiarism

Whether intentional or accidental, plagiarism can occur in several different ways. Below is a breakdown of the most common situations.

Gray Areas: Paraphrasing, Summarizing, and Common Knowledge

In keeping with the dictionary definition of plagiarism, academic policies regarding the infraction don’t just cover clear-cut, word-for-word copying without citation. They also include a broader class of offenses that include stealing concepts or ideas from another source, as well as inadequate paraphrasing and summarization of an author’s words. The ease with which text can be copied and pasted from websites and other online and digital sources has created new problems that fall under the heading of plagiarism, the most common of which is becoming commonly known as “patchwriting.”

One way to view these issues is in terms of a paradigm shift in what is expected of students as they transition from high school to college. A typical high school writing assignment might require students to read and then summarize a text, whether it is a section in a social studies textbook or a chapter in a novel, in order to shore up reading comprehension, and develop expository writing skills. Because the students are only drawing on one text, attribution and citation are generally reserved for direct quotes.

In college, however, students move beyond summarizing individual texts and into the more complicated realm of synthesizing ideas from a variety of sources. They are expected to read and research beyond the confines of a single book, chapter, or essay, and to use critical thinking skills to weigh different arguments, compare and contrast conflicting viewpoints, and weigh in with their own analysis of the issue or subject. This requires carefully delineating one’s own words and ideas from those found elsewhere, keeping track of numerous sources, and using proper citation and attribution styles, which can vary from discipline to discipline. Summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting directly from sources are now integrated into writing that also requires students to express their own ideas. And that, understandably, adds up to a far more complicated and potentially confusing process.

To Cite or Not to Cite: The Common Knowledge Exemption

The Harvard College Writing Program Guide to Using Sources defines common knowledge as, “information generally known to an educated reader, such as widely known facts and dates, and, more rarely, ideas or language. Facts, ideas, and language that are distinct and unique products of a particular individual’s work do not count as common knowledge and must always be cited.”

One of the first areas of confusion regarding plagiarism that students coming from high school to college are apt to confront is the question of what constitutes common knowledge and, therefore, does not require attribution. In general, simple factual information and common expressions are not subject to plagiarism restrictions; however, complex ideas, analyses, opinions, and interpretations are subject, and should be cited.

Wikipedia.org, while it’s often not the most well regarded source in academic settings, is actually a good guide for this because the best pages on Wikipedia aim to include citations for everything that isn’t common knowledge or request for the inclusion of a citation. It’s not foolproof, but it’s helpful in understanding the difference between what is and isn’t common knowledge.

Example of common knowledge:

The Wikipedia.org entry for director George Lucas correctly does not include a footnote citation for his full name (George Walton Lucas, Jr.), his birthdate (May 14, 1944), or his place of birth (Modesto, CA). Those facts are all part of the public record and can rightly be considered common knowledge, even if they’re not the sort of thing one would be expected to know off the top of his or her head. But, his estimated net worth as of 2015 (five billion) is attributed to Forbes magazine, because it’s specific information that might be disputable. In the opening paragraph, the entry states, “He is best known as the creator of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises,” without citation, because it’s a general factual observation. It continues, “Lucas founded Lucasfilm and led the company as chairman and chief executive before selling it to the Walt Disney Company in 2012,” which has a footnote link to a news report on the sale. One could argue that the detail about the sale is also potentially common knowledge, but it never hurts to cite a source.

Paraphrasing and Summarizing: Danger Zones

One of the common areas of confusion and misunderstanding for students wrestling with the concept of plagiarism is paraphrasing and summarization. Both are useful strategies in writing when used properly. Here’s a useful rule of thumb: If you find yourself changing a few words here and there in someone else’s writing, tinkering with a text in the hopes of making it your own, you’re asking for trouble. What you’ll end up with may not be word-for-word copying, but you’re still stealing the thoughts, ideas, and formulations of another writer, and that’s plagiarism. Additionally, it also may not amount to a successful paraphrase or summary. Either way, it does require a citation.

But, first let’s differentiate the two:

Paraphrasing involves reformulating a quote or restating a premise or point taken from a discrete section of text for the purposes of clarity or style. It can be useful for simplifying overly technical language, for updating antiquated language, or for bringing into sharper focus a specific concept or idea raised by the author.


A summary takes a larger section of text, perhaps even an entire chapter or essay, and boils it down into one or several key points that have specific relevance. As a result, a paraphrase is often roughly the same length as the original text, while a summary is always significantly shorter.

Examples of paraphrasing and summarizing:

This is an excerpt from a 1995 essay titled “Teaching Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Dr. Shelly Fisher Fishkin, Professor of American Studies and English at the University of Texas.

It is impossible to read Huck Finn intelligently without understanding that Mark Twain’s consciousness and awareness is larger than that of any of the characters in the novel, including Huck. Indeed, part of what makes the book so effective is the fact that Huck is too innocent and ignorant to understand what’s wrong with his society and what’s right about his own transgressive behavior. Twain, on the other hand, knows the score. One must be skeptical about most of what Huck says in order to hear what Twain is saying.

Unsuccessful paraphrase:

It’s hard to read Huck Finn without understanding that the author’s consciousness is bigger than any of the book’s characters, even Huck. One of the things that make the novel so good is that Huck remains blind both to the ills of his society and to the things that are good about his own rebellious behavior. Twain communicates this, and the reader has to listen past Huck’s words to hear what Twain really means to say.

Proper paraphrase:

In her essay on teaching Huck Finn, Dr. Shelly Fisher Fishkin emphasizes the importance of viewing Huck’s actions, words, and thoughts through the lens of the author, because Twain understood what Huck never could about the virtues of transgressing against unjust societal norms.


Dr. Shelly Fisher Fishkin argues for the importance of teaching Huckleberry Finn precisely because it is a difficult text, one in which the author confronts the evils of racism and slavery through the eyes of a character who’s too naïve to offer a coherent critique of his society, but whose instincts lead him in the right direction.

The “Patchwriting” Problem

In music, sampling refers to a process by which bits and pieces of existing song compositions are cut and pasted together into new works. Even as this sonic collage technique has gained respectability, it’s remained controversial, primarily because it’s not entirely clear what is and isn’t permissible under current laws governing copyright, licensing, and authorial ownership. So-called “patchwriting” presents an analogous dilemma for educators and administrators, as they confront the realities of the digital world, a domain in which students have access to seemingly unlimited source material that can easily be copied and pasted into assignments.

What is patchwriting?

A writing technique in which a writer weaves together material from several different sources, almost word-for-word, with his or her own words and ideas, and fails to acknowledge or cite the original sources. The result is a mixture of plagiarized material and original content.

Source: Northern Illinois University,
Online Tutorial on Academic Integrity

The question is, does patchwriting amount to plagiarism? Or, is it something else? Even the experts aren’t certain. Sandra Jamieson and Rebecca Moore Howard are professors who founded the Citation Project, a national research organization that has explored the issue, and in a 2011 interview with Project Information Literacy they had this to say: “Patchwriting is restating a phrase, clause, or one or more sentences while staying close to the language or syntax of the source. We have come to think of patchwriting as an unsuccessful attempt at paraphrasing. In the papers we have analyzed, students often toggle back and forth between paraphrase and patchwriting, as they try to answer the question, “How else can I say this?” You ask whether patchwriting is a form of plagiarism. It could be: a writer could deliberately patchwrite rather than go to the trouble of paraphrasing successfully. In our own experiences as writers, teachers, and adjudicators of plagiarism cases, however, we believe it seldom is. Patchwriting occurs whenever a writer struggles with a source text, and many first-year college students don’t even know that it isn’t ‘paraphrase.’”

Another, perhaps more useful way of conceptualizing patchwriting is as a kind of collage of source material that doesn’t include much in the way of insight or original writing from the student author. Think of it as stringing together quotes from various sources without providing context or synthesis. Even if the sources are properly cited, the result won’t be a very good paper.

Copyright Infringement vs. Plagiarism

Many students—and non-students—get confused about the difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement. Copyright gives an owner several exclusive rights under the federal Copyright Act. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, those rights include:

  • The right to reproduce copies of original work(s)
  • The right to prepare derivative works
  • The right to distribute copies of the work to the public (sale, rental, lease, or lending)
  • The right to perform or display the work publicly
  • The right to perform the work publicly via digital audio transmission (for sound recordings)

An individual who does any of the above without receiving permission from the copyright owner may be liable for infringement. All rights apply to both published and unpublished works.

In general, the basic differences between plagiarism and copyright infringement are:

Plagiarism Copyright Infringement
Though plagiarism is violation of an academic code, it is not illegal Copyright violation is illegal
Is an offence against the author Is an offence against the copyright holder
Applies when ideas are copied Applies only when a specific fixed expression is copied
Avoiding plagiarism involves giving proper intellectual credit Copyright is done to protect original works and to maintain revenue

Preventing Plagiarism: Proper Citation and Best Practices

There are a number of different ways to formally cite sources in academic works and in the publishing world outside of academia. Depending on the professor, the discipline, and the institutional policies, footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical citations may be preferred. There are also different style guides, including the Modern Language Association (MLA) formatting, American Psychological Association (APA) formatting, and Associated Press and Chicago stylebook formatting, which are all easily accessible online. For the purposes of avoiding plagiarism, the key is simply to make sure sources are clearly cited one way or another. Losing points for style may not be ideal, but it beats being brought up on plagiarism charges.

Let’s review the key ways in which plagiarism usually surfaces, using the Harvard College Writing Program’s Guide to Using Sources as a guide.

  Definition The Fix
Verbatim Plagiarism Failure to use quotation marks around words taken directly from another text, plus a lack of clear attribution for the quote. Add quotation marks and a citation.
Mosaic Plagiarism A kind of patchwriting in which parts from one or several sources are cobbled together with some of the writer’s own words without adequate attribution. Separate source material and add clear attribution for each.
Inadequate Paraphrase The writer only changes a few words in a poor attempt to paraphrase and ends up with something less than a reworked restatement of the original text. Even with proper citation, this can be considered plagiarism if it appears that the writer is wrongly taking credit for restating the original text in his or her own words. Quote the original text directly with attribution.
Uncited Paraphrase Failure to give the source credit for the ideas it contains, even though the passage has been partially or mostly reworded. Add proper citation prior to or after the paraphrased section.
Uncited Quotation A direct quote is used with the proper quotation marks, but no citation is included. Add proper citation.

Examples of proper citation:

We’ll use this section of text from Dr. Shelly Fisher Fishkin’s essay “Teaching Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to illustrate some common mistakes that can lead to a charge of plagiarism.

Something new happened in Huck Finn that had never happened in American literature before. It was a book, as many critics have observed, that served as a Declaration of Independence from the genteel English novel tradition. Huckleberry Finn allowed a different kind of writing to happen: a clean, crisp, no-nonsense, earthy vernacular kind of writing that jumped off the printed page with unprecedented immediacy and energy; it was a book that talked. Huck’s voice, combined with Twain’s satiric genius, changed the shape of fiction in America, and African-American voices had a great deal to do with making it what it was.

Verbatim Plagiarism

Huck Finn served as a Declaration of Independence from the genteel English novel tradition.

Proper Citation

As Fishkin points out in an essay on teaching the novel, “Huck Finn served as a Declaration of Independence from the genteel English novel tradition.”

Mosaic Plagiarism

Huck Finn changed the shape of fiction in America. It allowed for a new type of writing to happen, independent of the genteel English novel tradition. Twain’s writing is clean and crisp. It jumps off the page with immediacy and energy. And it crucially incorporates the voice of African-Americans.

Proper Citation

In her essay on teaching Huck Finn, Fishkin points to several ways in which the novel broke new ground for American fiction: it departed from the “genteel English novel tradition”; it incorporated “earthy vernacular kind of writing that jumped off the printed page with unprecedented immediacy and energy”; and “African-American voices had a great deal to do with making it what it was.”

Inadequate Paraphrase

As many critics have pointed out, Huck Finn was Twain’s way of declaring independence for American fiction from the tradition of the proper English novel, explains Fishkin in her essay on teaching Huck Finn.

Proper Paraphrase

A big part of what makes Huck Finn such an important literary landmark, according to Fishkin, is the degree to which it freed American writing from the constraints of British novel, incorporating earthy vernacular and African-American voices.

Uncited Paraphrase

Huck Finn is an important landmark in American literature because, in using the earthy vernacular and African-American voices, it cast off the constraints for the genteel British novel.

Proper Citation

Fishkin cites Huck Finn as an important landmark in American literature because, in using the earthy vernacular and African-American voices, it cast off the constraints for the genteel British novel.

Uncited Quotation

Twain broke new ground for American literature with Huckleberry Finn, allowing “a different kind of writing to happen: a clean, crisp, no-nonsense, earthy vernacular kind of writing that jumped off the printed page with unprecedented immediacy and energy; it was a book that talked.”

Proper Citation

As Fishkin points out in an essay on teaching the novel, Twain broke new ground for American literature with Huckleberry Finn, allowing “a different kind of writing to happen: a clean, crisp, no-nonsense, earthy vernacular kind of writing that jumped off the printed page with unprecedented immediacy and energy; it was a book that talked.”

Best Practices: Avoiding Plagiarism

Plagiarism isn’t the kind of thing that happens when one least expects it. Indeed, most plagiarism — the accidental or unintentional cases — happens exactly when one would expect it to. Students are anxious about their grades, pressured by deadlines, unsure of how to properly cite, disorganized in their research, and doing their best to put the final touches on a paper at the last minute. Too often that’s when plagiarism strikes. Saying don’t do it is sometimes easier said than done. Below are some simple preventative measures drawn from the Council of Writing Program Administrators’ statement on best practices that can help mitigate some of the prime causal factors in plagiarism.

Know and understand your college’s policy

Every school has a student handbook and most are accessible online. Find out how your school defines plagiarism, what the penalties are, and what other resources might be available. For example, more and more colleges and universities have writing centers that can help students get a handle on the issues surrounding plagiarism and the right way to write and cite.

Set realistic expectations about success.

Often, it’s the fear of failure or an aversion to taking risks that can lead students to plagiarize. Realistically weigh each assignment and understand that getting an undergraduate degree is a process. You don’t have to ace every single paper to graduate and it’s certainly not worth putting yourself under that kind of pressure if the end result may be a plagiarism charge.

Manage your time wisely.

It may be possible to pull a successful all-nighter if all you have to do is write a five or ten page paper. But research is another thing altogether. Start laying the groundwork early for each assignment by getting the reading and research done early on.

Keep your sources organized.

Online research and the ability to cut and paste text from various sources may create opportunities for accidental plagiarism, but they can also offer some easy solutions. If you’re cutting and pasting text into a document, make sure it’s in a different font than the default. Use Word to color code material from different sources; save URLs and bookmark websites you’ve used for particular assignments; and keep clear notes. Being able to show where you got uncited information after the fact can actually be a mitigating factor in cases where plagiarism is alleged. It’s worth having good notes going into an assignment and it can also be helpful afterward.

When in doubt, cite.

It’s a good rule of thumb at first to simply provide a citation whenever you’re not sure. Ask yourself where you got specific ideas, concepts, and information. Is it something you read? Did you copy or cut and paste any text into your paper? If there are any lingering doubts, provide a citation. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Putting Plagiarism in Context

There is a persistent and broad perception among educators that plagiarism is indeed on the rise, and plentiful anecdotal information to support that contention. Beyond that, there is an increasing body of research evidence that support the contention that plagiarism remains a pressing problem for students making the transition from high school to college. Here’s what some of the data shows:

A 2010 Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics survey of 43,000 high school students found that one in three admitted to using the Internet to plagiarize an assignment.

In a 2010 survey of 24,000 students at 70 high schools conducted by Rutgers Business School Professor Donald McCabe, 64% of students admitted to cheating on a test, 58% admitted to plagiarism, and 95% said they participated in some form of cheating, whether it was on a test, plagiarism or copying homework.

In surveys conducted by the same scholar between 2006 and 2010, nearly 40%, or two in five, undergraduates admitted to copying a few sentences for a written assignment.

McCabe’s research also found that 7% of college students admitted to copying materials “word-for-word” without citation and another 7% said they turned in work done by another person under their own name.

As reported by The Boston Globe, approximately 75% of college students admit to cheating at least once during their college career. This percentage has held steady since 1963, when the first major survey on college cheating was conducted.

Plagiarism FAQs

Plagiarism can be a complex issue. Below are some common questions that often cross the minds of many students.

Is copying off of another student plagiarism?

Technically, yes. The definition of plagiarism encompasses passing off another person’s words and ideas as one’s own. Therefore, copying the work of another student for an assignment that is turned in does constitute plagiarism. However, it’s also straight-up cheating, which is a problem unto itself.

Is submitting a purchased paper plagiarism?

Again, technically it is because it constitutes putting one’s name on written work that someone else has authored. But, as with copying from another student’s work, purchasing a paper is generally an academic violation that falls under the umbrella of cheating and is prohibited for reasons that extend beyond mere plagiarism.

Is making up a source plagiarism?

No. However, it may constitute academic dishonesty or lying, but it’s not technically plagiarism. Plagiarism tends to reflect a lack of creative thinking; making up a source or a quote may be the result of a surfeit of creativity.

Is it plagiarism if you reuse something from your own work?

This is a gray area. Schools may prohibit students from submitting the same assignment or piece of writing in more than one class without prior approval of the professors, and this can fall under the general heading of plagiarism. But it doesn’t fit the strict definition of appropriating the words and ideas of another person. Full disclosure is generally the best policy in situations where there might be a conflict. For example, if you want to use work or writing previously done for a class on British history in a Shakespeare class, you should check with the professor or at least include a footnote or endnote with the passage in question.

How many words do I have to change in order for it not to be plagiarism?

There is no set number of words that would make a difference in respect to plagiarism. In fact, if you find yourself going to the trouble of changing words to avoid plagiarism charges, you’re better off spending that time accurately citing the source. Because, theoretically, it’s possible to plagiarize without using a single word in common with a source, assuming you’re parroting the ideas from that source.

Do works in the “public domain” or without the name of an author attached to them have to be cited?

Yes, provided you’re quoting from the work or using an idea garnered from the work. If the text itself exists, then it can and should receive attribution, regardless of whether or not the author’s name is known.

What are the legal punishments for plagiarism?

Plagiarism isn’t a crime in and of itself. Its analogue in the legal domain is copyright infringement, which can lead to civil litigation and substantial penalties. Basically, if you use a large enough part of another person’s work without permission or just cause, it can be considered copyright infringement. Fortunately, academic purposes are generally considered a just cause for referencing portions of another author’s work without permission.

How much of a cited text can I use in my own work?

Because copyright infringement is unlikely in an academic setting, particularly if no one is profiting from the use of portions of a text, the answer depends on the assignment and the purposes of the citation. For example, if you’re writing a close textual analysis of a poem, using the entire text of that poem is unnecessary and probably won’t serve you well. Quoting from half of the poem may even be too much. But, this isn’t a plagiarism issue; it’s more a question of relevance.

If the citation is wrong, is it still plagiarism?

This is a tricky one. While it may not seem fair, an incorrect citation does mean that you have failed to properly identify the author and the source. And that is a kind of plagiarism. But policies on this will vary from class to class and professor to professor. Indeed, it’s far more likely that a citation mistake would run afoul of plagiarism policies for upper level undergraduates and graduate students than for students in their first and second years of college.

Are hyperlinks considered a form of attribution?

This is an unsettled question. For practical purposes, hyperlinks are gaining traction in the realm of online publishing as a means of attribution. But, it can be problematic in cases where the link becomes inactive. In an academic setting, it’s best to assume that hyperlinks are not an adequate means of citation.


There are several online resources available to detect, as well as prevent, plagiarism. Whether you are a student, educator, or concerned parent, the following list of resources provides helpful information and tools for those interested in learning more about plagiarism and how to avoid it.

Resources on Proper Citation

Citation Machine

This site helps researchers and professionals properly site sources used. Users can select from APA, MLA, Chicago, and Turabian citation styles.


A collaborative, membership-based association of scholarly publishers, CrossRef calls itself “the citation linking backbone for all scholarly information in electronic form” and serves as a platform for the scholarly community to have easier access to research content.


On EasyBib, users can find easy-to-use citation, note taking, and research tools as well as resources on MLA, APA, and Chicago citation styles. The platform also provides tools and information to help educators teach their students how to be effective researchers.


This reference manager allows users to search databases, collect PDFs, organize sources, build and format bibliographies, and share research. The platform is offered in three versions: EndNote X7 (desktop and online), EndNote for iPad, and EndNote basic (free, online-only).


Mendeley is a free reference manager that allows students and researchers to cite as they write, as well as read and annotate PDFs on any device.

OWL – Research and Citation Resources

Purdue OWL offers guides and information on research and proper citation. Find information on APA, MLA, and Chicago styles.


An online, free, and easy-to-use tool to help users collect, organize, cite, and share research sources. Zotero can interact with all types of online resources and allows users to automatically extract and save bibliographic references.

Resources for Students

Council of Writing Program Administrators

A national association of college faculty with professional experience in writing program and curricula, the CWPA includes a section on advice for students concerned about plagiarizing, as well as links to other online assets and tutorials.

Harvard College Writing Program’s Guide to Using Sources

Includes a comprehensive overview of how to properly use sources in academic work, including an in-depth section on different kinds of plagiarism and how to avoid common pitfalls in college writing.


Developed by Turnitin, iThenticate is the leading provider of professional plagiarism detection. This tool can be used by editors, authors, and researchers to evaluate originality. Text is compared against a database of more than 50 billion web pages and 130 million works.


An information website for students who would like to know more about plagiarism and how to avoid it. The site also includes a section on citing sources, creating footnotes and bibliographies, paraphrasing, and using quotes properly.


This free online tool allows students, teachers, publishers, and website owners to search assignments for instances of plagiarism. The tool reads and analyzes content in English, French, German, Italian, Romanian, and Spanish.


Drawing on the search capabilities of the Internet, as well as a proprietary database of college papers, Turnitin gives students and professors a report that highlights portions of an assignment that are not original work and thus may be plagiarized. The idea is that students then have an opportunity to go back and make sure they’ve provided proper citations for any portion of the work that can be shown to appear elsewhere.


Provided by Pearson, this online tool can be used as a plagiarism checker, as well as a grammar checker. The site notes that the tool is used by both high school and college students and was developed based on feedback from various instructors. Although this tool utilizes the same search database as Turnitin, the main differences are that WriteCheck identifies potential unintended plagiarism and does not find a matching source and WriteCheck papers are not added to a student database of papers.

Resources for Teachers


Professors and teachers at all levels can use EVE2 to find instances of plagiarism in students’ work. If plagiarism is detected, educators receive a full report, which includes the percentage of plagiarism and an annotated copy of the work showing all instances of plagiarism.

Faculty Tips on Preventing Plagiarism

Adelphi University created a guide on plagiarism specifically for faculty. The guide includes resources and information and focuses on improved classroom instruction—rather than surveillance—in order to prevent plagiarism and cheating.

MIT – Comparative Media Studies

MIT offers basic information on how teachers can prevent plagiarism. In addition to using tools to detect incorrect copying, find out what teachers and professors can do to prevent plagiarism in the first place.

Plagiarism & Teaching Strategies – Washington State University

Washington State University has an entire section on its website dedicated to plagiarism, including teaching strategies for professors. WSU notes that poorly constructed assignments can sometimes be the reason students submit low quality work or plagiarize and cheat. Educators can read more about the role of assignment design when it comes to plagiarism and what they can do help prevent academic dishonesty.


This free, easy-to-use online tool compares copied-and-pasted phrases against resources found in Google and Yahoo. Users can indicate whether they are a teacher or a student for tailor instructions and results.


Both students and teachers can take advantage of this online plagiarism detection tool. In addition to analyzing the originality of a text, the platform also offers various tools to help teachers train students to do quality, original academic writing.


This site serves as a reading and language arts resource for educators, parents, and afterschool professionals. Educators can find information and tools on detecting plagiarism as well as lesson plans for teaching students about plagiarism.

Responding to Plagiarism – DePaul University

Created by DePaul University, this resource emphasizes approaching plagiarism as an opportunity for learning. Instead of detection and punishment, educators can have open discussions and incorporate creative activities to turn plagiarism into a “learning tool”.


This online tool can be used to detect plagiarism as well as be an educational tool to prevent it.