What Is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is using someone else's writing as your own without proper documentation. Whether the words come from a friend's paper or a school textbook, the author must be properly acknowledged in your paper. Otherwise, this serious offense can be considered copying, cheating, even stealing.

But I thought…

I was supposed to use other books as sources when I write a paper.
You are. There's nothing wrong with referring to writing that is not your own. You can even include this material in a paper. Just make sure you cite the work by using quotations. And always include a bibliography with the book title and author at the end of your paper.

I was supposed to use the ideas in textbooks as part of my research.
The ideas put forth in reference books should spark original thoughts in your head. When you research, read the material carefully. Then report the information with a unique spin that includes your opinions, thoughts, or reactions. You can put the textbook's factual information in your paper, of course, but once again, be sure to cite it.

…I was supposed to agree with the author.
Teachers often assign papers asking you to agree or disagree with the author. So the question is, how can you do that and still use your own words? Start by asking yourself why you agree with the writer's statements. Write down a few reasons. Then you can acknowledge what the author thinks while adding your own two cents in a paper.

…I was supposed to model my own writing after someone else's.
You could be given a poem or a fable and be asked to mimic the style. Come up with original ideas to write in the form of the piece of writing, but don't copy the author's words to complete the assignment.

Reading other people's work helps you become a better writer. You should never be afraid to build upon the information you read to show your teacher what you've learned. Give credit to the authors you use. When in doubt, cite the work — it's better safe than sorry!

Could I Be Plagiarizing Without Knowing It?

There's a difference between plagiarizing with intent and possibly plagiarizing by accident.

Action

Intentional or Accidental?

How to Fix It

Asking someone to do the writing for you

Intentional

You should always do your own work. If a fellow student seems to understand the topic better than you, ask for advice. Find out how he does his research or what writing techniques he uses.

Giving another student money to do the assignment for you

Intentional

Never, ever pay someone to do your homework. It's wrong.

Copying information from an encyclopedia word for word

Intentional

Take notes from reference materials and combine with your own thoughts to form original content.

Turning in a paper posted on the Internet by someone else

Intentional

This is stealing. Teachers are very aware that this happens, and the punishment will be severe. Write your own paper.

Using an author's words without putting them in quotation marks

Intentional

Lifting someone's words or thoughts without giving them credit isn't right. Always use quotes or paraphrase.

Paraphrasing information without quotes and then not tagging it with its author

Possibly Accidental

In some cases you may mistakenly think it's your own thoughts. Don't risk it. Either put it in quotes or mention the source before, during, or after the information is recorded.

Interviewing someone in person, by phone, or by email and using his words without quoting him

Possibly Accidental

Just because a person doesn't write down his thoughts doesn't mean they are not his thoughts. Be a responsible interviewer. Write down the exact quotes so you can properly acknowledge the interviewee.

What doesn't need to be cited?

Anything of your opinion is just that — your opinion. You certainly don't need to quote yourself! Also on the safe list:
1. Common knowledge (something the reader already knows or information that is undocumented in all other sources)
2. Accepted factual information
3. Things you personally observe and record
4. Personal experiences

How can I tell if I'm citing correctly?

Use the information above as guidelines. Ask your teacher if you need outside sources for a paper, and if so, whether you are to include a bibliography. Teachers sometimes want different types of citation, but educators universally employ the Modern Language Association. If you have questions about proper citation, check out the guidelines at their Web site

By Cara Pitterman — please quote her if you use this article as reference!