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3.3: Plagiarism

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  • Although there are many ways that you could undermine your ethical stance before an audience, the one that stands out and is committed most commonly in academic contexts is plagiarism. A dictionary definition of plagiarism would be “the act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person” (Merriam-Webster, 2015). According to the student help website, sponsored by WriteCheck, plagiarism is often thought of as “copying another’s work or borrowing someone else’s original ideas” (“What is Plagiarism?”, 2014). However, this source goes on to say that the common definition may mislead some people. Plagiarism also includes:

    • Turning in someone else’s work as your own;
    • Copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit;
    • Failing to put quotation marks around an exact quotation correctly;
    • Giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation;
    • Changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit;
    • Copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not.

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    Plagiarism exists outside of the classroom and is a temptation in business, creative endeavors, and politics. However, in the classroom, your instructor will probably take the most immediate action if he or she discovers your plagiarism either from personal experience or through using plagiarism detection (or what is also called “originality checking”) software. Many learning management systems, perhaps such as the one used at your institution, now have a plagiarism detection program embedded in the function where you submit assignments.

    In the business or professional world, plagiarism is never tolerated because using original work without permission (which usually includes paying fees to the author or artist) can end in serious legal action. The Internet has made plagiarism easier and thus increased the student’s responsibility to know how to cite and use source material more.

    Types of Plagiarism

    In our long experience of teaching, we have encountered many instances of students presenting work they claim to be original and their own when it is not. We have also seen that students often do not intend to plagiarize but, due to poor training in high school, still are committing an act that could result in a failing grade or worse. Generally, there are three levels of plagiarism: stealing, sneaking, and borrowing. Sometimes these types of plagiarism are intentional, and sometimes they occur unintentionally (you may not know you are plagiarizing). However, as everyone knows, “Ignorance of the law is not an excuse for breaking it.” So let’s familiarize you with how plagiarism occurs in order to prevent it from happening.


    There is a saying in academia: “If you steal from one source, that is plagiarism; if you steal from twelve, that is scholarship.” Whoever originated this saying may have intended for it to be humorous, but it is a misrepresentation of both plagiarism and scholarship.

    No one wants to be the victim of theft; if it has ever happened to you, you know how awful it feels. When a student takes an essay, research paper, speech, or outline completely from another source, whether it is a classmate who submitted it for another instructor, from some sort of online essay mill, or from elsewhere, this is an act of theft no better or worse than going into a store and shoplifting. The wrongness of the act is compounded by the fact that then the student lies about it being his or her own. If you are tempted to do this, run the other way. Your instructor will probably have no mercy on you, and probably neither will the student conduct council.

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    Most colleges and universities have a policy that penalizes or forbids “self-plagiarism.” This means that you can’t use a paper or outline that you presented in another class a second time. You may think, “How can this be plagiarism or wrong if I wrote both and in my work I cited sources correctly?” The main reason is that by submitting it to your instructor, you are still claiming it is original, first-time work for the assignment in that particular class. Your instructor may not mind if you use some of the same sources from the first time it was submitted, but he or she expects you to follow the instructions for the assignment and prepare an original assignment. In a sense, this situation is also a case of unfairness, since the other students do not have the advantage of having written the paper or outline already.


    Some sources refer to this kind of plagiarism as “string of pearls” plagiarism or “incremental plagiarism” (Lucas, 2015). Instead of taking work as a whole from another source, the student will copy two out of every three sentences and mix them up so they don’t appear in the same order as in the original work. Perhaps the student will add a fresh introduction, a personal example or two, and an original conclusion. This “sneaky” plagiarism is easy today due to the Internet and the word processing functions of cutting and pasting.

    In fact, many students do not see this as the same thing as stealing, because they think “I did some research. I looked some stuff up and added some of my own work.” Unfortunately, this approach is only marginally better than stealing and will probably end up in the same penalties as the first type of plagiarism. Why? Because no source has been credited, and the student has “misappropriated” the expression of the ideas as well as the ideas themselves. Interestingly, this type of plagiarism can lead to copyright violation if the work with the plagiarism is published.

    Most of the time students do not have to worry about copyright violation when they correctly use and cite material from a source. This is because in academic environments, “fair use” is the rule. In short, you are not making any money from using the copyrighted material, such as from a published book. You are only using it for learning purposes and not to make money, so “quoting” (using verbatim) with proper citation a certain amount of the material is acceptable for a college class.

    If, however, you were going to try to publish and sell an article or book and “borrowed” a large section of material without specifically obtaining permission from the original author, you would be guilty of copyright violation and by extension make your organization or company also guilty. When you enter your career field, the “fair use” principle no longer applies and you will need to obtain permission from the copyright holder and pay fees to use all or portions of a work. For more information on this very important and often misunderstood subject, visit the Creative Commons website and the Library of Congress One area in speeches where students are not careful about citing is on their presentational slides. If a graphic or photo is borrowed from a website (that is, you did not take it or design it), there should be a citation in small letters on the slide. The same would be true of borrowed quotations, data, and ideas. Students like to put their works cited or references on the last slide, but this really does not help the audience or get around the possibility of plagiarism.


    The third type of plagiarism is “borrowing.” In this case, the student is not stealing wholesale. He or she may actually even give credit for the material, either correctly or incorrectly. He might say, “According to the official website of . . .” or “As found in an article in the Journal of Psychology, Dr. John Smith wrote . . .” Sounds good, right? Well, yes and no. It depends on whether the student has borrowed in a “sneaky way” (cutting and pasting passages together but this time indicating where the sections came from) or if the student is using the ideas but not the exact wording. In other words, has the student adequately, correctly, and honestly paraphrased or summarized the borrowed material, or just “strung the pearls together” with some “according to’s”?

    Ethically Crediting Sources

    In using source material correctly, a speaker does three things:

    1. He or she clearly cites the source of the information. It is here that the oral mode of communication differs from the written mode. In a paper, such as for literature, you would only need to include a parenthetical citation such as (Jones 78) for Modern Language Association (MLA) format, indicating that a writer named Jones contributed this idea on page 78 of a source that the reader can find on the Works Cited Page. In a paper for a class in the social sciences, an American Psychological Association (APA) format citation would be (Jones, 2012) or (Jones, 2012, p. 78). The first would be used if you summarized or paraphrased information from the source, and second (with the page number) is used to indicate the words were quoted exactly from a source. Obviously, in that case, quotation marks are used around the quoted material. In both cases, if the reader wants more information, it can be found on the References Page (APA) or Works Cited Page (MLA).

    A speech is quite different. Saying “According to Jones, p. 78,” really does very little for the audience. They can’t turn to the back of the paper. They don’t have a way, other than oral communication, to understand the type of information being cited, how recent it is, the credibility of the author you are citing and why you think he or she is a valid source, or the title of the work. It is necessary in a speech to give more complete information that would help the audience understand its value. The page number, the publishing company, and city it was published in are probably not important, but what is important is whether it is a website, a scholarly article, or a book; whether it was written in 1950 or 2010; and what is the position, background, or credentials of the source.

    So, instead of “According to Jones, p. 78,” a better approach would be,

    “According to Dr. Samuel Jones, Head of Cardiology at Vanderbilt University, in a 2010 article in a prestigious medical journal…”


    “In her 2012 book, The Iraq War in Context, historian Mary Smith of the University of Georgia states that…”


    “In consulting the website for the American Humane Society, I found these statistics about animal abuse compiled by the Society in 2012…”

    This approach shows more clearly that you have done proper research to support your ideas and arguments. It also allows your audience to find the material if they want more information. Notice that in all three examples the citation precedes the fact or information being cited. This order allows the audience to recognize the borrowed material better. The use of a clear citation up-front makes it more noticeable as well as more credible to the audience.

    2. The speaker should take special care to use information that is in context and relevant. This step takes more critical thinking skills. For example, it is often easy to misinterpret statistical information (more on that in Chapter 7), or to take a quotation from an expert in one field and apply it to another field. It is also important to label facts as facts and opinions as opinions, especially when dealing with controversial subjects. In addition, be sure you understand the material you are citing before using it. If you are unsure of any words, look their definitions up so you are sure to be using the material as it is intended.

    3. The speaker should phrase or summarize the ideas of the source into his or her own words. Paraphrasing, which is putting the words and ideas of others into one’s own authentic or personal language, is often misunderstood by students. Your instructor may walk you through an exercise to help your class understand that paraphrasing is not changing 10% of the words in a long quotation (such as two or three out of twenty) but still keeping most of the vocabulary and word order (called syntax) of the source. You should compose the information in your own “voice” or way of expressing yourself.

    In fact, you would be better off to think in terms of summarizing your source material rather than paraphrasing. For one thing, you will be less likely to use too much of the original and therefore be skirting the edge of plagiarism. Secondly, you will usually want to put the main arguments of a source in your own words and make it shorter.

    Here is an example of an original source and three possible ways to deal with it.

    Original information, posted on website, October 31, 2015:

    “The biggest federal inmate release on record will take place this weekend. About 6,600 inmates will be released, with 16,500 expected to get out the first year. More than 40,000 federal felons could be released early over the next several years, the U.S. Sentencing Commission said. The sentencing commission decided a year ago to lower maximum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and to make the change retro-active, with the inmate releases effective November 1, 2015. Sentences were reduced an average of 18%, the commission said. Early release will be a challenge for the inmates as well as the judicial bureaucracy” (Casarez, 2015).

    With that as our original source, which of the following is truly paraphrasing?

    The CNN News website says the federal government is releasing 40,000 felons from prison in the next few years.

    According to a report posted on CNN’s website on October 31 of 2015, the federal government’s Sentencing Commission is beginning to release prisoners in November based on a decision made in 2014. That decision was to make maximum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders shorter by an average of 18%. Over the next several years over 40,000 federal felons could be let go. However, this policy change to early release will not be easy for the justice system or those released.

    The largest release ever of federal inmates will take place in early November. At first 6,600 inmates will be released, and then over 16,000 over the first year. The U.S. Sentencing Commission says it could release over 40,000 federal felons over the upcoming years because the sentencing commission decided a year ago to lessen maximum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and to make this happen for those already in jail. When the Sentencing Commission says that when it made that decision, the sentences were reduced an average of 18%. Early release will be a challenge for the felons as well as the judicial system. This came from a story on CNN News website in later October 2015.

    If you chose the second citation, you would be correct. The first version does not really interpret the original statement correctly, and the third choice imitates the original almost entirely. Choice 2, on the other hand, is in completely different language and identifies the source of the information clearly and at the beginning.

    This exercises may raise the question, “Should I always paraphrase or summarize rather than directly quote a source?” There are times when it is appropriate to use a source’s exact wording, but quoting a source exactly should be done sparingly—sort of like using hot sauce! You should have a good reason for it, such as that the source is highly respected, has said the idea in a compelling way, or the material is well known and others would recognize it.


    As mentioned before, students often have not been trained to use source material correctly and plagiarize unintentionally. But like the old saying goes, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” You will still be held accountable whether you understand or not, so now, in your early college career, is the time you should learn to cite source material correctly in oral and written communication.

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    Something to Think About

    In Appendix B you will find more information about plagiarism

    Why do you think it is so hard for students to learn to cite sources appropriately? This exercise might be helpful for you to develop an understanding of orally citing your sources. Choose one of your sources for an upcoming speech for this exercise. On a sheet of paper, answer these 9 questions.

    1. Is this information you found in a unique source, or information that was repeated in all or most of your sources?
    2. Who is the original author or “speaker” of this quotation or material?
    3. What is the title of source?
    4. Is it a primary or secondary source? Is the writer quoting someone else (secondary) or is the author the one who discovered the knowledge/information? If the source is secondary, who is being quoted or cited originally?
    5. What do you know about the source of the cite? Is she/he an expert, such as a scientist, doctor, government official, college professor, etc?
    6. Where did you find the article? In what journal or magazine, on what website, in what book?
    7. If a website, who sponsors the website (what organization, government, company)?
    8. When was this information published? What is the date on it?
    9. Are you repeating the source’s words exactly or just abstracting (summarizing) what was said? Which would be better, in this case?

    If you had to pick 5 of the 7 above to put in your speech, which would you use, based on the three criteria of 1. Audience can find it 2. It makes you look more credible, and 3. It is ethical? Put a star by them.

    If you had to pick 4 of the 7, which one would you take out from the previous question? (Cross it out)

    It is not necessary to say all of this information, but most of it. This is how a speech citation is different from a paper. The audience does not have access to this information unless you say it.

    Now, write how you would cite this source in the speech. Stem phrases would be “According to . . .” “In the article. . .” “On a webpage entitled . . .” “On the website for the . . . . organization. . .” “In my interview with Dr. Sam Smith, who is . . . .”

    Compare with classmates.