A primer on plagiarism

What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism, derived from the Latin plagiarus (literally, “kidnapper”)—which in turn is derived from plagium (literally, “kidnapping”)—may be defined as follows: an act or instance of stealing and passing off the ideas or words of another as one’s won; using a created production without crediting the source; committing literary theft; or presenting as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source (“Plagiarism”; “Plagiarize”; “Plagiary”).

Irving Hexham, a professor at the University of Calgary, provides a definition specifically for an academic context:

Plagiarism is the deliberate attempt to deceive the reader through the appropriation and representation as one’s own the work and words of others. Academic plagiarism occurs when a writer repeatedly uses more than four words from a printed source without the use of quotation marks and a precise reference to the original source in a work presented as the author’s own research and scholarship. Continuous paraphrasing without serious interaction with another person’s views, by way [of] argument or the addition of new material [and] insights, is a form of plagiarism in academic work. (emphasis added)

Based on the foregoing, deliberateness, as a condition of plagiarism, is determined not by the intention of the author per se, but by how the author appropriated and represented his/her own work and the work of others. While one may not desire to commit plagiarism, the mere fact that one did not act to prevent it still renders one culpable. Willful blindness does not exempt one from accountability.

Plagiarism is the kidnapping—and mutilation—of ideas. It is akin to kidnapping the child of another, hacking off its limbs, and sewing these limbs onto one’s own already horribly deformed infant, creating an even worse monster than what one had to begin with.

Plagiarism is considered a heinous violation of ethics in the academe, as well as in fields like journalism. It is not the same thing as copyright infringement, though the two are often conflated. Obtaining permission from the originator of an idea is not an impediment to plagiarism, which in any case is not a legal issue.

How is plagiarism committed?

When one lifts information or material from a source without the appropriate quotation marks, off-setting, and/or documentation, one has already committed plagiarism. Even should one completely paraphrase or rewrite information or material from a source, one still needs to cite said source. Paraphrasing, however extensive, is still a form of lifting.

Only information or material derived from common knowledge or one’s personal experience may be lifted with relative impunity.

It is difficult to provide an exact definition of “common knowledge”, but it may be said to be composed of ideas or concepts that (a) require little or no specialized knowledge to be understood; (b) are easily confirmed by an exercise of sound judgment or through unaided human experience; and (c) are widely held to be true.

According to Purdue OWL:

Generally speaking, you can regard something as common knowledge if you find the same information undocumented in at least five credible sources. Additionally, it might be common knowledge if you think the information you’re presenting is something your readers will already know, or something that a person could easily find in general reference sources. But when in doubt, cite; if the citation turns out to be unnecessary, your teacher or editor will tell you.

Take note, however, that when one lifts substantial information or material from artifacts of personal experience, such as diaries, letters, transcripts of discussions, and online postings, among others, such sources should be cited.

What are the types of plagiarism?

There are many ways of classifying acts of plagiarism, but for the purpose of this primer, these types will be discussed: incidental plagiarism, substantial plagiarism, and self-plagiarism.

  • Incidental plagiarism pertains to the minor lifting of information or material from a source without the appropriate quotation marks, off-setting, and/or documentation.
  • Substantial plagiarism pertains to the considerable lifting of information or material from a source without the appropriate quotation marks, off-setting, and/or documentation (Ehrlich). The most egregious cases involve at least one of the following: (a) copying a text in its entirety and passing it off as one’s own work; (b) purchasing a text and passing it off as one’s own work; or (c) the hiring of someone to prepare a text and passing it off as one’s own work (Ehrlich). [This last act is actually part of Ehrlich’s definition for “fraud”, but for purposes of this primer, it has been included as part of “substantial plagiarism”.]

The above distinctions are predicated on these operational definitions, which have been formulated based on material from Ehrlich, Hexham, and Purdue OWL:

  • Lifting – the act of copying, inserting, paraphrasing, summarizing, downloading, translating, or otherwise utilizing information or material from a source
  • Minor lifting – the lifting of more than four words, but less than three sentences—or the substantive equivalent thereof—from a source
  • Considerable lifting – the lifting of three or more sentences—or the substantive equivalent thereof—from a source
  • Off-setting – the indention of quoted material, a formatting convention that is applied to long quotations
  • Documentation – the proper acknowledgement of sources of information or material, in adherence with the prescribed documentation style

Self-plagiarism, also known as recycling fraud, pertains to the disguising of a work that one has previously written as an entirely new work, as when a student submits essentially the same paper to different courses (Hexham). While it is acceptable to redeploy one’s ideas and opinions from an older work to a newer one, the writer must ensure that the works are clearly distinct from each other in terms of examples, arguments, and/or conclusions presented (Hexham).

How does one avoid committing plagiarism?

One can avoid plagiarism by undertaking the task of documentation with due diligence. A good rule of thumb would be: When in doubt, cite the source.

A caveat: One must ensure that information or material lifted from sources does not constitute the bulk of one’s work, such that one’s work is essentially a collage of ideas without a clear, individuated perspective. Why bother writing anything otherwise?


Works Cited

Ehrlich, Heyward. “Plagiarism and Anti-Plagiarism”. Heyward Ehrlich, English Dept., Rutgers-Newark. 20 Mar. 2008. Rutgers U. 26 Jun. 2008.

Hexham, Irving. “Academic Plagiarism Defined”. Irving Hexham’s Home Page. 2005. U of Calgary. 26 Jun. 2008.

Plagiarism”. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 25 June 2009

Plagiarize”. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 25 June 2009

Plagiary”. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 25 June 2009

Purdue OWL. “Avoiding Plagiarism”. The Online Writing Lab at Purdue. 10 May 2008. Purdue University Writing Lab. 07 Sep. 2008.