Defining Plagiarism

Plagiarism is a form of academic misconduct and can thus lead to dismissal from universities and other research institutions, article rejections or retractions from journals, and decreased credibility as a researcher. How do you know if you're plagiarizing?

Updated on May 21, 2013

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Research manuscripts typically build upon or revise previous work and are often critical for academic career success. However, improperly referring to or recycling previous work can both decrease the likelihood of publication and damage career prospects.

The U.S. Office of Research Integrity defines plagiarism as “the appropriation of another person's ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit.” Said differently, plagiarism is the misrepresentation of someone else's original thought as your own. In fact, the Latin root of plagiarism means kidnapper or thief. Such theft is a form of academic misconduct and can thus lead to dismissal from universities and other research institutions, article rejections or retractions from journals, and decreased credibility as a researcher.

This article on defining plagiarism and a companion article on avoiding plagiarism have been adapted as a white paper.

Unfortunately, individuals may still be tempted to plagiarize for myriad reasons, including feeling a pressure to publish, driven by their desire for recognition and/or career advancement; experiencing anxiety about writing in English; or struggling to express complex ideas in their own words. Although we often think of plagiarism as intentional, it can also be accidental. Carelessness while writing, heavy reliance on few sources, the cultural belief that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” and a lack of understanding of what plagiarism is may all lead to inadvertent intellectual theft. The two most widely recognized forms of plagiarism are as follows:

Verbatim plagiarism

Copying text word-for-word from someone else's work. If content from several sources is duplicated, this form of plagiarism is known as mosaic or patchwork.

Plagiarism of ideas

Mentioning someone else's unique idea, whether in the form of a theory, an interpretation, data, a method, an opinion, or new terminology, without citing your source, even if explained in your own words.

Other forms of plagiarism

Moreover, there are several less commonly understood but equally concerning forms of plagiarism that should be avoided:

Loose paraphrasing

Paraphrasing someone else's work with only slight changes, effectively maintaining the other author's logic while mentioning most or all of the same ideas. Note that the flow of an argument is indeed an original idea.

Plagiarism from alternate sources

Failing to cite the source of publicly available knowledge that is not in the scholarly literature. Similar to journal articles, sources such as books, webpages, blogs, lectures, and personal communication (including descriptions of unpublished ideas, with permission) should be referenced if they contributed unique information to your manuscript.

Self-plagiarism and duplicate publication

Recycling your own previously published text on a small scale (such as reusing a paragraph from one manuscript in the methods section of a second manuscript) or on a larger scale (such as the publication of the same manuscript in two separate journals), respectively. This is perhaps the most often overlooked category of plagiarism. Although self-plagiarism and duplication do not entail the theft of another's original ideas, this practice is unethical, particularly given that many journals ask for a confirmation that your research has not been published elsewhere, and is sometimes a violation of copyright law. For more on self-plagiarism, see our article defining the practice and why it should be avoided.

We hope that today's editing tip has clarified the multifaceted concept of plagiarism. Please also see our tips on how to avoid plagiarism and the free related white paper, and as always, contact us at [email protected] with any questions that you may have.

PlagiarismQuotationsSource citationWord choiceParaphrasingPublication ethicsAuthor Resources
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