Frequently Asked Questions on Plagiarism


What does it meant to plagiarize?


According to Webster’s International Dictionary, the definition of plagiarism is “to steal or purloin and pass off as one’s own the ideas, words, or artistic production of another; to use without credit the ideas, expressions, or productions of another.”  Basically, plagiarism comes in three forms: “fraud,” “patchwriting,” and “insufficient or undocumented paraphrasing.” 


In brief, each paper that you turn in and every sentence in it must be written completely by you, or you must give proper credit to the other writers for their ideas and words.  In addition, most teachers consider handing in papers that were written for other classes to be a form of plagiarism.  New papers should be written for each assignment unless your teacher indicates otherwise.  Remember that writing teachers are experienced at picking out papers that contain plagiarism.  Do not be tempted to download papers from the web or to "recycle” papers from other students. 


Why shouldn’t I plagiarize?


Most people consider plagiarism to be ethically and morally equivalent to lying, cheating, and stealing.  When you plagiarize, you have stolen another’s work.  Further, you shortchange your own education and compromise your ethics.  Additionally, you risk damaging your grade for the assignment or the course, and you risk damaging your GPA and your academic or professional career.  


Plagiarism is a very serious academic offense.  In a way, the very foundation of the American educational system rests on the issue of trust, and this trust depends on an honest exchange between students and their teachers.  Just as students need to trust that teachers are honest about grading, teaching, and advising, teachers need to trust that students will be honest when taking tests and writing papers.  Plagiarism, or any type of cheating, seriously undermines this foundation.  This sort of dishonesty indicates that there may be serious questions about the offending student's ethics, and the stigma of this unethical behavior may follow the student for years—decreasing the student's chances of success in academic and professional work.


What can happen to me if I plagiarize?


Students who commit any act of academic dishonesty may receive from the instructor a failing grade in that portion of the course work in which the act is detected or a failing grade in the course without possibility of withdrawal. The faculty member may also present the case to the Office of the Dean of Student Life for disciplinary sanctions. A student who believes a faculty member has dealt unfairly with him/her in a course involving academic dishonesty may seek relief through the Student Complaint Procedure. Your teacher may be understanding and tolerant of “accidental” plagiarism; however, you should check with your teacher if you have any doubts about whether you are committing plagiarism in a paper. 


What is “fraud”? 


Turning in a paper that was written or partially written by anyone else is “fraud.”  In this case, “anyone else” includes everyone but you.  You may not turn in a paper that was written or partially written by your parent, your boyfriend or girlfriend, your spouse, your sibling, a friend, a stranger, another student, a professional or amateur author, or anyone else.


What is “patchwriting”?


“Patchwriting” is taking several other texts that were written by others, piecing together these ideas or words into a single paper, and turning in that paper as your own work.


What is “insufficient or undocumented paraphrasing”?


“Insufficient paraphrasing” occurs when not enough of the original language and sentence structure of the source is changed for a paraphrase.  To paraphrase correctly, major words and basic sentence structure should be changed from the original.  “Undocumented paraphrasing” is taking sections of another’s words or ideas and changing them into your own words without giving the writer proper credit.  All sources, no matter how briefly used, must be given credit.  A paper should not be made up of a series of paraphrases.  Use paraphrasing to support your own ideas and not to construct your paper.     


Does this mean that I can’t get help writing my papers?


You can.  All successful writers rely on other readers to help make their writing better.  In fact, going to the Writing Center or having another student or friend read your papers before you turn them in is generally a good idea.  Often, classes will have “peer review” sessions that allow other students to read and comment on your papers.  However, you should never let anyone else sit at the computer and type in words or hold the pen and write in words.  Ask readers to limit their responses to letting you know where you might make changes (for example, word choice, spelling, confusing sentences, awkward structures, organization, etc.)  Even if you decide to take a reader’s advice, you should not let them make substantial changes to your work.


Does that mean that I can’t look at what other people have written to get ideas for my own paper?  You can.  However, if you write about what these other people have written on the subject or if you quote them, use their original ideas or language, or paraphrase, then you must give them credit in your paper.


How do I do that?


Part of the instruction in your classes is designed to teach you how to properly give credit to other writers.  If you plan to look at what other writers have said about a topic you have been assigned, you should check with your teacher to establish whether or not this is permitted for this assignment and ask to receive instruction in how to give proper credit in your paper.


Can I plagiarize by accident?


Yes.  Occasionally, students do get confused about plagiarism.  If you are unsure about whether you have plagiarized, you should talk to your teacher before you hand in your paper.  If you are having trouble writing your paper, do not be tempted to plagiarize; instead, ask your teacher for additional help with the assignment.


[Acknowledgement: This document is based on a WKU Dept of English handout.]