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Writing for College: Avoiding Plagiarism

Updated on February 5, 2013
Plagiarism is theft.
Plagiarism is theft. | Source

Definition of Plagiarism

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the transitive verb form of plagiarism as: “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own : use (another's production) without crediting the source” and the intransitive verb form of plagiarize as: “to commit literary theft : present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source” (Merriam-Webster).

In other words, plagiarism is taking any information, ideas, or words from a book, the internet, a television show you watched last night, or class notes, without giving appropriate credit to the author.

This may sound simple enough, but there are many gray areas and sometimes confusion about how one would properly cite a source. Below, I will outline the plagiarism spectrum which denotes the types and the severity of plagiarism. The plagiarism spectrum was established from a recent study performed by Turnitin, a resource for teachers to check student papers for plagiarism.

Types of Plagiarism

1. Clone
An act of submitting another’s work, word-for-word, as one’s own.
The act of combining perfectly cited sources with copied passages—without citation—in one paper.
A written piece that contains significant portions of text from a single source without alterations.
A paper that represents a mix of copied material from several different sources without proper citation.
8. 404 ERROR
The act of changing key words and phrases but retaining the essential content of the source in a paper.
A written piece that includes citations to non-existent or inaccurate information about sources.
An act of paraphrasing from other sources and making the content fit together seamlessly.
The “Aggregator” includes proper citation, but the paper contains almost no original work.
The act of borrowing generously from one’s own previous work without citation; To self plagiarize.
This paper includes proper citation, but relies too closely on the text’s original wording and/or structure.

The table above comes directly from the Turnitin results (

The “Clone,” the first and worst offense, is a pretty obvious form of plagiarism. What may not be so obvious is the “Recycle,” also known as self-plagiarism. I admit that as a college freshman I recycled a paper, and although I felt a little guilty about it at the time, I honestly had no idea that turning in my own work was considered plagiarism. I wrote it, right?

Self-plagiarism may sound silly, and indeed it may come off as pretentious when an author cites his or her own work, but nevertheless, a citation is needed for ideas or information that has appeared in a previous publication. For undergraduate students, the main concern is the recycling of papers and projects. If the final paper for English Comp is simply a “research paper on a subject of interest to you,” it’s very tempting to reprint and hand in the research paper that you just finished for your history class. However, this is plagiarism because it is not original work created for the assignment (

Unintentional Plagiarism

Several of these types of plagiarism can be considered unintentional plagiarism. Although we may never know another student’s actual intentions, it is easy to see that some students may have difficulty properly citing their sources and may therefore unintentionally commit the “404 Error.”

Many other students may simply not understand how to properly paraphrase information, or may not have the comprehension skills to completely understand the information and put it into their own words.

Unintentional plagiarism is still plagiarism, so if you are feeling overwhelmed and feel as though you are relying too closely on the ideas or text of another article, ask for help! Your professor should be happy to help you, and you can always contact a writing tutor to work with you individually.

Penalties for Plagiarism

The consequences for plagiarism vary depending on the situation. The plagiarism may go undetected, in which case the plagiarizer is

  • cheated of a learning experience, and
  • undermines the academic community.

However, it is very easy to type a suspicious phrase into google to find the source, and professors are gaining access to more resources, such as Turnitin, which check for plagiarism.

Plagiarism policies at any given school vary.

  • At the very least, the plagiarized paper will receive no credit.
  • Often, depending on the frequency or severity of the plagiarism, the plagiarizer will receive no credit or a failing grade for the entire course.
  • For repeated acts of blatant plagiarism, the plagiarizer can be expelled from the institution.

Plagiarism in a professional career leads to:

  • job termination,
  • a negative reputation that may hinder future job opportunities,
  • legal repercussions.

Violations of copyright laws can be extremely serious. For instance, Apple sued Samsung for 2.5 billion dollars for essentially plagiarizing certain features of the iPhone (

Strategies for Avoiding Plagiarism

Most students plagiarize when the stakes are high and they are overwhelmed, or simply don’t feel that they have anything to add to the academic conversation.

To avoid plagiarism:

  • Begin your paper ahead of time and finish before the deadline.
  • Keep track of all your research so that you can go back and find all of the information you’ll need to cite your sources. Keep index cards with the source citation and important quotes or facts that you may use in your paper.
  • See a writing tutor who can help you develop your own original argument.
  • Run your paper through a plagiarism check such as
  • Become familiar with MLA and APA format (or Chicago or Turbanian if your professor asks you to use it).

Citation Guidelines

You can find most of your information about MLA and APA format at the Purdue OWL, or the most recent style guide. These guidelines cover in-text citations, the reference page, the format of your paper, grammar and style. Pay close attention to punctuation-- the placement of quotation marks and parenthesis within your paper are a big deal, as well as in your Works Cited or Bibliography.

Throughout this article I have used a modified MLA format for citing my sources. You can see my in-text citations provided for quotes and other factual information that I have taken from other sources. Below I have provided a Works Cited page.

Plagiarism Quiz

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Works Cited*

* Title should be centered and on a new page, but I can't format it correctly here. Each citation should also have a hanging indentation, which means that the second line is tabbed over. It is essentially the opposite of a regular paragraph format.

"Apple Wins Lawsuit Against Samsung..." Fox, 24 August 2012. Web. 24 November 2012.

"Glossary." Web. 24 November 2012.

Merriam-Webster. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 24 November 2012.

"Plagiarism Spectrum." Turnitin. 0512. iParadigms, 2012. Web. 24 November 2012.


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    • sgiguere profile image

      Stephanie Giguere 5 years ago from Marlborough MA

      Thanks! It is very easy to copy and paste information from the internet now... it is part of living in the digital age!

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Glimmer Twin Fan 5 years ago

      Very useful hub! I think it is so much easier these days to plagarize than when I was in college. There are an infinite number of websites and articles that people can reference. Voted up!