What Is Plagiarism? How to Avoid These 5 Types at All Costs

June 27, 2019

Plagiarism isn’t an academic word that disappears once you graduate.

Plagiarism isn’t as simple as borrowing someone else’s work, either. In short, plagiarism is theft. Whether written, multimedia (images, videos, graphics, music), or spoken word, using someone else’s content without proper attribution to the original source falls within the realm of plagiarism. 

What is plagiarism, and why is it a big deal? 

Plagiarism is the uncredited use of a person’s proprietary content that is passed off as original content by someone else.

You’ve heard about plagiarism more times than you can count, but still don’t understand what the big deal is. Everyone does it, right? (No, they don’t.)

Plagiarism, though not technically illegal or criminal, can classify as a crime depending on the severity of the case. If you’re copying an essay, quotes from a book, an online resource, or the contents of your coworker’s resume, that’s considered plagiarism. However, if you’re plagiarizing something that is protected by a trademark or copyright, you could be fined, sued, charged, or even put in jail.

So, to prevent yourself from accidentally (or intentionally) plagiarizing, keep reading to learn about five types of plagiarism and how to stop yourself from committing this morally questionable offense.

5 types of plagiarism to avoid

The following five types of plagiarism are most common, yet super easy to avoid. Although many are specific to academic writing (e.g. essays and research papers), anything below is applicable to business professionals with writing-heavy job functions as well. 

1. Missing quotation marks and author attribution

Any time you use a quotation, whether it’s a couple of words, a few sentences, or a large block of text, you have to attribute the quote to the person who originally uttered (or wrote) the words you’re referencing. To do this, list the person by name and include quotation marks around any and all words belonging directly to the speaker/writer.

In the academic world, you’ll most likely be using MLA, APA, or CMS citation style guides for your classwork (unless in a specialized concentration), so make sure you know which one you’re supposed to use for your specific course.

In the professional world, simply referencing the person by name (first and last) and the work from which you are quoting will suffice. Otherwise, sticking with MLA format is always a safe choice.

2. Buying a paper from an essay writing website

Especially popular among college students facing strict deadlines for midterms and final exams that consist of an essay portion, essay writing websites might seem like a hero in disguise. These sites promise 100% original content within a certain timeframe (e.g. in 24 hours or three days, depending on how quickly you need your paper).

However, while this method might seem failsafe, many online essay writing websites reuse essays that their essay writers had once created for someone (100% originally, as promised) and send you, the naive buyer, a copy of a previously-written paper about the topic you requested an essay for. 

Because you cannot guarantee that they have hand-crafted a brand new essay for you, you could potentially be accused of plagiarism if you turn it in and someone else has submitted it before you – even if it was at a school or institution far from yours. 

It’s not like you can go to your professor and make a claim that the paper isn’t plagiarized because you bought it brand new online. Then, not only are you a plagiarist, but you’re also a cheater. It’s not a good look.

3. Turning in someone else’s work as your own (even if they let you)

Even if you’re not a student anymore, you were at some point, meaning you definitely had friends who took a class before you did and vice versa. Many instructors stick with the same syllabus semester after semester, year after year. So much work goes into creating a syllabus that they simply don’t want to overhaul and create another one for the same class they’re teaching for the 12th time. 

Students are wise and know this from talking to each other. So if your friend took a class on the history of artificial intelligence in fall semester 2018, and you plan to take it in spring semester 2020, you’re already aware of that there’s a 10-page final essay you’ll need to write. But you don’t like writing, and your friend got an A on their final essay, so you figure it’s been long enough that you can just re-submit the paper with your name on it and you’re good to go.

Well, not only do instructors have a pretty good memory, they can also use plagiarism-checking websites to give them an extra layer of security in confirming the originality of your final paper.

Plus, if you get caught plagiarizing, you’ll definitely fail the paper, fail the class, and both you and your friend can be expelled for such an offense. But hey, those are the consequences of plagiarism.

4. Having somebody rewrite sections of your paper (or the whole thing)

Students who are struggling with starting or completing a paper will usually take their professor’s advice and seek help at their university’s writing center from a writing tutor. But a large number of students take the word help a bit too liberally and expect a writing tutor to, well, write their paper for them.

While writing tutors are beneficial resources for assisting in completion of an assignment, finding more source material, or helping a writer with learning how to rework their content, tutors aren’t there to write or rewrite students’ papers.

If you ask a writing tutor to “reword” or “rephrase” a large chunk of a paper you’ve written, or ask them how they would say something with the expectation that they give you a word-for-word response that you can copy and use as your own words, that’s plagiarism.

Writing tutors should be used to enhance your own writing while helping you learn how to become a better writer. Don’t take advantage of them!

5. Using old work you previously wrote as “repurposed” content

Using an old paper you wrote for a class years ago or an article you published on your former employer’s website and trying to pass it off as freshly written or “repurposed” content is considered self-plagiarism.

You’re probably thinking but I can’t plagiarize myself! Well actually, you can.

Self-plagiarism is pretty simple. If you use the exact same content you’ve previously written and try to pass it off as new or “repurposed” content, you’re self-plagiarizing. Be honest with your reader and provide them with a note indicating that this is not the first use of or publication of the content they’re reading.

And hey, if your writing is in an online format, you can even link back to your other content and grow your site traffic! 

Other types of plagiarism

You might not think that things like paraphrasing, source misattribution, and using content deemed to be “common knowledge” constitute as plagiarism, but you’d be surprised.

1. Paraphrasing (without attribution)

To get around citing sources, people opt to paraphrase content. However, there’s a fine line between paraphrasing something and usurping content that someone else wrote first. You might come across the most informational source about the topic you’re researching (and have to write about), and you think that they say what you need to say better than you ever could. So you decide to copy and paste directly from their website and change some words here and there, but keep the general idea of what they said intact.

Guess what? That’s still plagiarism.

Just because you add a few flowery words and switch the order of the text from the original source doesn’t mean you’ve created something original. To make sure you aren’t accidentally plagiarizing, give credit to the author of your original source or the website where your source material came from. You don’t have to use quotation marks because you aren’t directly quoting the source, but you should reference your source by name as a way to cite them.

2. Source misattribution

In the same way that not citing your source constitutes plagiarism, so does citing an incorrect source. Just because you read that one person said or wrote a famous quote you’ve heard a hundred times doesn’t mean that the person you heard it from actually said it first.

Michael Scott Wayne Gretzky memeImage courtesy of The Office via imgur

3. Common knowledge

Words and phrases like Abraham Lincoln’s “four score and seven years ago” or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” are considered common knowledge. So yes, we all know that Lincoln gave The Gettysburg Address and that MLK Jr. gave the I Have a Dream speech; however, you should still note the source (person) whose common words and phrases you’re using.

Simply noting “When MLK Jr. said he had a dream…” in your writing would be sufficient in this instance. Nobody’s going to confuse Lincoln or MLK Jr. with someone else, and everybody knows who they are.

Use plagiarism-checking software to put your mind at ease

Because detecting plagiarism with the naked eye isn’t always a foolproof solution, you might want a second opinion on determining the originality of a text. Fortunately, for instructors, educators, and writers alike, education software that pinpoints plagiarism already exists.

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