Plagiarism is the unauthorized or uncredited use of the writings or ideas of another in your writing. While it might not be as tangible as auto theft or burglary, plagiarism is still a form of theft.
In the academic world, plagiarism is a serious matter because ideas in the forms of research, creative work, and original thought are highly valued. Chances are, your school has strict rules about what happens when someone is caught plagiarizing. The penalty for plagiarism is severe, everything from a failing grade for the plagiarized work, a failing grade for the class, or expulsion from the institution.
You might not be aware that plagiarism can take several different forms. The most well known, purposeful plagiarism , is handing in an essay written by someone else and representing it as your own, copying your essay word for word from a magazine or journal, or downloading an essay from the Internet.
A much more common and less understood phenomenon is what I call accidental plagiarism. Accidental plagiarism is the result of improperly paraphrasing, summarizing, quoting, or citing your evidence in your academic writing. Generally, writers accidentally plagiarize because they simply don’t know or they fail to follow the rules for giving credit to the ideas of others in their writing.
Both purposeful and accidental plagiarism are wrong, against the rules, and can result in harsh punishments. Ignoring or not knowing the rules of how to not plagiarize and properly cite evidence might be an explanation, but it is not an excuse.
To exemplify what I’m getting at, consider the examples below that use quotations and paraphrases from this brief passage:
Those who denounce cyberculture today strangely resemble those who criticized rock music during the fifties and sixties. Rock started out as an Anglo-American phenomenon and has become an industry. Nonetheless, it was able to capture the hopes of young people around the world and provided enjoyment to those of us who listened to or played rock. Sixties pop was the conscience of one or two generations that helped bring the war in Vietnam to a close. Obviously, neither rock nor pop has solved global poverty or hunger. But is this a reason to be “against” them? (ix).
And just to make it clear that I’m not plagiarizing this passage, here is the citation in MLA style:
Lévy, Pierre. Cyberculture. Trans. Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001.
Here’s an obvious example of plagiarism:
Those who denounce cyberculture today strangely resemble those who criticized rock music during the fifties and sixties.
In this case, the writer has literally taken one of Lévy’s sentences and represented it as her own. That’s clearly against the rules.
Here’s another example of plagiarism, perhaps less obvious:
The same kind of people who criticize cyberculture are the same kind of people who criticized rock and roll music back in the fifties and sixties. But both cyberculture and rock music inspire and entertain young people.
While these aren’t Lévy’s exact words, they are certainly close enough to constitute a form of plagiarism. And again, even though you might think that this is a “lesser” form of plagiarism, it’s still plagiarism.
Both of these passages can easily be corrected to make them acceptable quotations or paraphrases.
In the introduction of his book Cyberculture, Pierre Lévy observes that “Those who denounce cyberculture today strangely resemble those who criticized rock music during the fifties and sixties” (ix).
Pierre Lévy suggests that the same kind of people who criticize cyberculture are the same kind of people who criticized rock and roll music back in the fifties and sixties. But both cyberculture and rock music inspire and entertain young people (ix).
Note that changing these passages from examples of plagiarism to acceptable examples of a quotation and a paraphrase is extremely easy: properly cite your sources.
This leads to the “golden rule” of avoiding plagiarism:
Always cite your sources. If you are unsure as to whether you should or should not cite a particular claim or reference, you should probably cite your source.
Often, students are unclear as to whether or not they need to cite a piece of evidence because they believe it to be “common knowledge” or because they are not sure about the source of information. When in doubt about whether or not to cite evidence in order to give credit to a source (“common knowledge” or not), you should cite the evidence.