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Definitions and terms

What Is Plagiarism?

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines plagiarizing as committing “literary theft.” Plagiarism is presenting another person’s ideas, information, expressions, or entire work as one’s own. It is thus a kind of fraud: deceiving others to gain something of value. While plagiarism only sometimes has legal repercussions (e.g., when it involves copyright infringement—violating an author’s exclusive legal right to publication), it is always a serious moral and ethical offense.

What Makes Plagiarism a Serious Offense?

Plagiarists are seen not only as dishonest but also as incompetent, incapable of doing research and expressing original thoughts. When professional writers are exposed as plagiarists, they are likely to lose their jobs and are certain to suffer public embarrassment, diminished prestige, and loss of future credibility. The same is true of other professionals who write in connection with their jobs, even when they are not writing for publication. The charge of plagiarism is serious because it calls into question everything about the writer’s work: if this piece of writing is misrepresented as being original, how can a reader trust any work by the writer? One instance of plagiarism can cast a shadow across an entire career.

Schools consider plagiarism a grave matter for the same reason. If a student fails to give credit for the work of others in one project, how can a teacher trust any of the student’s work? Plagiarism undermines the relationship between teachers and students, turning teachers into detectives instead of mentors, fostering suspicion instead of trust, and making it difficult for learning to take place. Students who plagiarize deprive themselves of the knowledge they would have gained if they had done their own writing. Plagiarism also can undermine public trust in educational institutions, if students are routinely allowed to pass courses and receive diplomas without doing the required work.

-From the MLA Style Center,


All education is a cooperative enterprise between faculty and students. This cooperation requires trust and mutual respect, which are only possible in an environment governed by the principles of academic honesty. As an institution devoted to teaching, learning, and intellectual inquiry, Holy Cross expects all members of the College community to abide by the highest standards of academic integrity. Any violation of academic honesty undermines the student-faculty relationship, thereby wounding the whole community. The principal violations of academic honesty are plagiarism, cheating, and collusion.

-From the Holy Cross student handbook - "Academic Integrity Policy"

Academic integrity, as defined by the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI), is a commitment by academic communities, "even in the face of adversity," to the six core values of "honesty, trust, fairness, respect, responsibility, and courage." Throughout most of the twentieth century, public outcries over academic misconduct were rare. This began to change in 1964, when sociologist William J. Bowers published Student Dishonesty and Its Control in College, which reported the results of the first large-scale survey of academic dishonesty among American college students. In the following decade, scandals surfaced involving both research integrity among academic scientists and student cheating at high-profile universities. Since then, academic institutions have devoted time and effort to fostering standards of academic integrity. Beginning in the late twentieth century, the ready availability of online resources intensified concerns that have only multiplied as technology has become more sophisticated.

-From Rholetter, W. Me. (2013). Academic integrity. Salem Press Encyclopedia. Retrieved from


Direct Plagiarism 

Direct plagiarism is the word-for-word transcription of a section of someone else’s work, without attribution and without quotation marks. The deliberate plagiarism of someone else's work is unethical, academically dishonest, and grounds for disciplinary actions, including expulsion. [See examples.]

Self Plagiarism

Self-plagiarism occurs when a student submits his or her own previous work, or mixes parts of previous works, without permission from all professors involved. For example, it would be unacceptable to incorporate part of a term paper you wrote in high school into a paper assigned in a college course. Self-plagiarism also applies to submitting the same piece of work for assignments in different classes without previous permission from both professors.

Mosaic Plagiarism

Mosaic Plagiarism occurs when a student borrows phrases from a source without using quotation marks, or finds synonyms for the author’s language while keeping to the same general structure and meaning of the original. Sometimes called “patch writing,” this kind of paraphrasing, whether intentional or not, is academically dishonest and punishable – even if you footnote your source! [See examples.]

Accidental Plagiarism

Accidental plagiarism occurs when a person neglects to cite their sources, or misquotes their sources, or unintentionally paraphrases a source by using similar words, groups of words, and/or sentence structure without attribution. (See example for mosaic plagiarism.) Students must learn how to cite their sources and to take careful and accurate notes when doing research. (See the Note-Taking section on the Avoiding Plagiarism page.) Lack of intent does not absolve the student of responsibility for plagiarism. Cases of accidental plagiarism are taken as seriously as any other plagiarism and are subject to the same range of consequences as other types of plagiarism.

-From Bowdoin College's "Types of Plagiarism"

How to avoid plagiarism

Ethical writers make every effort to acknowledge sources fully and appropriately in accordance with the contexts and genres of their writing. A student who attempts (even if clumsily) to identify and credit his or her source, but who misuses a specific citation format or incorrectly uses quota­tion marks or other forms of identifying material taken from other sources, has not plagiarized. Instead, such a student should be considered to have failed to cite and document sources appropri­ately.

What are the Causes of Plagiarism and the Failure to Use and Document Sources Appropri­ately?

Students who are fully aware that their actions constitute plagiarism—for example, copying pub­lished information into a paper without source attribution for the purpose of claiming the informa­tion as their own, or turning in material written by another student—are guilty of academic mis­conduct. Although no excuse will lessen the breach of ethical conduct that such behavior repre­sents, understanding why students plagiarize can help teachers to consider how to reduce the op­portunities for plagiarism in their classrooms.

  • Students may fear failure or fear taking risks in their own work.

  • Students may have poor time-management skills or they may plan poorly for the time and effort required for research-based writing, and believe they have no choice but to plagia­rize.

  • Students may view the course, the assignment, the conventions of academic documenta­tion, or the consequences of cheating as unimportant.

  • Teachers may present students with assignments so generic or unparticularized that stu­dents may believe they are justified in looking for canned responses.

  • Instructors and institutions may fail to report cheating when it does occur, or may not enforce appropriate penalties.

Students are not guilty of plagiarism when they try in good faith to acknowledge others’ work but fail to do so accurately or fully. These failures are largely the result of failures in prior teaching and learning: students lack the knowledge of and ability to use the conventions of authorial attri­bution. The following conditions and practices may result in texts that falsely appear to represent plagiarism as we have defined it:

  • Students may not know how to integrate the ideas of others and document the sources of those ideas appropriately in their texts.

  • Students will make mistakes as they learn how to integrate others’ words or ideas into their own work because error is a natural part of learning.

  • Students may not know how to take careful and fully documented notes during their re­search.

  • Academicians and scholars may define plagiarism differently or more stringently than have instructors or administrators in students’ earlier education or in other writing situations.

  • College instructors may assume that students have already learned appropriate academic conventions of research and documentation.

  • College instructors may not support students as they attempt to learn how to research and document sources; instead, instructors may assign writing that requires research and expect its appropriate documentation, yet fail to appreciate the difficulty of novice academic writ­ers to execute these tasks successfully.

  • Students from other cultures may not be familiar with the conventions governing attribu­tion and plagiarism in American colleges and universities.

  • In some settings, using other people’s words or ideas as their own is an acceptable practice for writers of certain kinds of texts (for example, organizational documents), making the concepts of plagiarism and documentation less clear cut than academics often acknowledge and thereby confusing students who have not learned that the conventions of source attri­bution vary in different contexts.

What are our Shared Responsibilities?

When assignments are highly generic and not classroom-specific, when there is no instruction on plagiarism and appropriate source attribution, and when students are not led through the iterative processes of writing and revising, teachers often find themselves playing an adversarial role as “plagiarism police” instead of a coaching role as educators. Just as students must live up to their responsibility to behave ethically and honestly as learners, teachers must recognize that they can encourage or discourage plagiarism not just by policy and admonition, but also in the way they structure assignments and in the processes they use to help students define and gain interest in topics developed for papers and projects.

Students should understand research assignments as opportunities for genuine and rigorous in­quiry and learning. Such an understanding involves:

  • Assembling and analyzing a set of sources that they have themselves determined are relevant to the issues they are investigating;

  • Acknowledging clearly when and how they are drawing on the ideas or phrasings of others;

  • Learning the conventions for citing documents and acknowledging sources appropriate to the field they are studying;

  • Consulting their instructors when they are unsure about how to acknowledge the contributions of others to their thought and writing.




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