An Overview of Plagiarism
What is plagiarism?

According to, plagiarism is defined as "a piece of writing that has been copied from someone else and is presented as being your own work". Plagiarism can exist in many contexts, such as the author of a book inappropriately using material from another author, or a journalist inappropriately using material from some other source.

Is plagiarism serious?

Regardless of the context, plagiarism typically has serious consequences. As an example, an Associated Press news item from April, 2007 (currently available at indicated "A CBS News producer was fired and the network apologized after a Katie Couric video essay on libraries was found to be plagiarized from The Wall Street Journal...The essay was removed from the CBS Web site and an editorís note was posted saying the item should have credited Jeffrey Zaslow of the Journal, the network said Tuesday."

What is academic honesty, and how does it relate to plagiarism?

The term academic honesty often refers to behavior and actions whereby a broad set of activities in an academic environment are performed honestly and ethically. Academic honesty thus includes the topic of plagiarism, and likely includes other areas as well. In this tutorial, we will focus on plagiarism, and focus on the context of a university learning environment. In that context, plagiarism involves submitting an item (such as a written paper, a presentation, or a discussion) in a university learning environment (typically a class) where at least some of the content is non-original, without having adequately identified that content as non-original, and without having adequately identified the source of that non-original content.

In this tutorial, we will use the term assignment to mean any item created and submitted in the university learning environment, and that term is meant to include papers, plans, presentations, spreadsheets, discussions, or any other learning activity deliverable.

Does plagiarism have to be deliberate?

Many universities have created their own definitions of plagiarism. Some of those definitions include wording related to whether or not the offense was done "knowingly" or "deliberately". It's worth noting that the above definition from doesn't include any such wording. By many definitions of the word, plagiarism exists if non-original material is used without properly crediting its source, even if that was done accidentally (such as due to carelessness or being in a hurry to complete a paper). As such, care should always be taken to avoid any possibility of plagiarism because "I was in a rush" may not necessarily be an acceptable excuse for plagiarism.

Is there a widely accepted penalty for plagiarism?

Most universities have explicit policies related to the implications and penalties associated with plagirism. Some of those policies are very structured, and some will leave it up to an instructor as to the penalties for plagiarism. One fairly common policy is that plagiarism implies receiving no credit for the assignment, without any opportunity to fix the plagiarism and resubmit the assignment. If plagiarism is found in a major assignment (such as perhaps worth 30% of the course grade), receiving no credit for that assignment can dramatically impact a grade earned, including resulting in failing a class.

Is there a widely accepted penalty for multiple occurrences of plagiarism?

Here too, many universities have explicit policies related to the implications and penalties associated with multiple instances of plagiarism. Some universities have adopted a policy whereby the first incident results in failing the assignment, the second incident result in failing the course, and the third incident result in being expelled from the university. Even if a university doesn't have that explicit a policy regarding multiple violations, the fact that some do should highlight just how serious plagiarism (particularly multiple occurrences) is.

How does one avoid plagiarism?

In general, assignments done for academic purposes should be primarily your own content. That's because assignments are used to determine whether or not you have mastered the concepts of a given course, and have achieved the associated competencies. Relying on non-original material would be similar to having someone else take a test for you.

It is, however, perfectly acceptable (and in fact expected) that you will use some amount of supporting non-original content when you put together an assignment. The key is to use that as supporting material (rather than as the majority of your content), and to properly highlight the non-original content as being non-original (including providing its source).

Method 1 for appropriately using non-original material: Quoting

The first method for appropriately using non-original material is to provide short quotes which support your original assignment content. You do that by surrounding the quote (which should be taken exactly from the non-original material) with quotation marks, to then immediately follow it with an in-text citation, and finally to have an associated entry in your References page (sometimes known by other names, such as a Works Cited page. It's critical that all three of those rules be followed, and omitting any of them means you haven't correctly quoted the non-original material.

Most universities have specific applicable formatting guidelines which should be used when developing assignments, with many using a format developed by the American Psychological Association (, commonly known as APA. That association has material available describing its formatting guidelines, such as by clicking on "APA Style" on their home page. Many universities also have the same (or similar) APA formatting guidelines.

Using APA formatting, the following is an example of quoting non-original material:

In his article entitled "Anatomy of a Supply Chain", Daniel Jacobs indicated "Dell's well-known model of selling directly to the end user has become legendary not just in the high-tech industry but throughout all of manufacturing. Consider: The company manufactures more than 50,000 computers every day, but carries only four days' worth of inventory, when many of its competitors carry between 20-30 days of inventory." (Jacobs, 2003, p. 1).
Jacobs, D. G. (2003). Anatomy of a supply chain. Supply Chain Technology News. March, 2003.

Note that the non-original wording is enclosed in quotation marks, that there is an immediately following in-text citation (the "(Jacobs, 2003, p. 1)"), and there is an associated entry in the paper's Reference page.

Method 2 for appropriately using non-original material: Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing involves taking the concepts in non-original material, but using your own words to describe those concepts. In this case, you want to give credit for the non-original concepts, but you aren't actually quoting, and thus you don't need to use quotation marks. However, you do still need to have an in-text citation and an associated entry in your References page.

Using APA formatting, the following is an example of paraphrasing non-original material:

Dell is recognized as having a very efficient supply chain due to its make-to-order approach to manufacturing, and its emphasis on maintaining very little product inventory. (Jacobs, 2003, p. 1).
Jacobs, D. G. (2003). Anatomy of a supply chain. Supply Chain Technology News. March, 2003.

Is it appropriate to take non-original wording and edit it?

Some students might consisider it to be paraphrasing if they take non-original material, and edit it some so it doesn't appear to be an exact quote. In reality, that approach to fulfilling an assigmment doesn't really meet the requirements of academic honesty. One might consider it similar to copying someone else's answers to a test, and then intentionally changing some to be different so as to not obviously be copying.

When creating an item to fulfill an assigmment, you should either fully and correctly quote non-original material (without changing it via minor edits) and thus quote the material, or you should truly create your own wording (not just edits to the original wording) and thus paraphrase the material.

An over reliance on non-original material (even if properly quoted, cited, and referenced)

Some students might consider that they could write a paper primarily (or perhaps entirely) using non-original material, being sure to properly quote, cite, and reference that non-original material. While the result likely doesn't involve plagiarism, it's hopefully obvious that approaching assignments that way doesn't really demonstrate an understanding of the concepts of a course, and doesn't really demonstrate having achieved the associated competencies. Thus it's very important to ensure that an assignment is primarily your own content (likely with supporting non-original material). Many instructors might have policies whereby they will downgrade an assignment that relies too heavily on non-original content (even if properly quoted, cited, and referenced), to the point of giving zero credit in extreme cases.

If material exists in multiple locations, does it still have to be quoted, cited, and referenced?

Sometimes students will find content that exists in multiple (perhaps many) sources, such as on multiple web sites. As an example, the history or mission statement of a prominent company might exist in multiple locations. But in terms of plagiarism, it doesn't matter if the non-original material exists in one source or in many. If a part if your assignment content is non-original, you must follow the rules discussed earlier related to either quoting or paraphrasing it.

If material is factual (opposed to opinion), does it still have to be quoted, cited, and referenced?

In terms of plagiarism, it doesn't matter if the non-original material is fact (such as a description of a company and its products) or opinion. If a part of your assignment content is non-original, you still must follow the rules discussed earlier related to either quoting or paraphrasing it.

If non-original material isn't copyrighted, does it still have to be quoted, cited, and referenced?

In terms of plagiarism, it doesn't matter if the non-original material is copyrighted or not. If a part of your assignment content is non-original, you still must follow the rules discussed earlier related to either quoting or paraphrasing it.

If an instructor allows you to fix plagiarism and resubmit an assignment, what are the instructor's responsibilities vs. yours?

Many times, if you submit an assignment with plagiarism, you will receive a zero for that assignment, and will not be allowed to fix the plagiarism and resubmit it. But if a particular university or instructor does allow you to fix plagiarism in an assignment and resubmit it (perhaps with an associated penalty), it's worth noting that the instructor does not have the responsibility of identifying all instances of plagiarism in your paper so you can fix them. If the instructor finds even one instance of plagiarism, he or she will often immediately give you zero points, and not even read the rest of your assignment. Avoiding plagiarism is entirely your responsibility (not your instructor's), and if you are given a second chance, it is your responsibility to ensure there are no subsequent incidences of plagiarism in your revised assignment. It may of course be difficult to find all instances in a paper if you haven't been careful in the first place. Thus it's far better to avoid plagiarism right from the beginning, rather than trying to fix it after-the-fact.

If plagiarism isn't detected at first, might there be implications if it's later detected?

If a student submits an assignment with plagiarism, and the instructor doesn't initially catch it, that student might think he or she no longer needs to be concerned about that assignment. Depending on the specifics, however, it's possible that the instructor (or some other appropriate academic professional) might re-review that assignment at a later date. And during that re-review, it's possible that the plagiarism would then be found, and the relevant penalties would be retractively applied.

As a related point, depending on the flow of a particular academic course, it's possible that an assignment might need to be submitted more than once. As an example, perhaps a draft version of an assignment would be required at one point in a course, and a final version of that same assignment would be required later in the course. Even if an instructor didn't detect plagiarism in the draft version of the assignment, the penalties associated with plagiarism would still fully apply to the final version of the assignment. And in fact, the instructor might very well retractively apply the relevant penalties to a draft that contained plagiarism, even if the plagiarism wasn't detected until the final version of the assignment.

The reality is that plagiarism is plagiarism, regardless of when it's detected.

In an online learning environment, do the rules of quoting, citing, and referencing apply to informal discussion postings?

The answer is yes. Plagiarism doesn't just apply to formal assignments, but rather applies to all deliverables associated with a given course.

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