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Guide to what is plagiarism

You’ve probably had writing teachers warn you not to plagiarize. You can get in trouble for plagiarism. Don’t do it!

Ok, it sounds bad, but… what is plagiarism?

Plagiarism is using someone else’s words or work and submitting them as your own. To plagiarize is to take credit for someone else’s work. Think of plagiarism as stealing someone’s work, and then lying about it.

That sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it?

Imagine that you wrote an awesome paper for a psych class. Your cousin comes over one day, sees a print-out of your paper on your desk, and remembers her own psych assignment is due in a couple of days. She makes a copy of your paper, then submits it to her psych professor. She gets an A!

How would you feel when you found out what she did? You worked on that paper for days. You brainstormed and made an outline. You wrote your draft then revised it three times before you decided it was ready to submit.

Your cousin saw it, skimmed it, thought it was good enough for her own class, then just copied it. And she got an A for that.

That is plagiarism.

Someone does all this work, coming up with a good idea, developing it into an essay or a speech or a video. Then someone else comes along and just makes a copy of it. Or, they just copy a part of it. That is stealing someone’s work. And if they then turn it in, the professor assumes it’s their work. That is lying about it.

The concept of intellectual property

In the United States (as well as other countries, but this guide focuses on the US), your original ideas that you put into words, speech, images, graphs, or video are considered your intellectual property. You are the owner. You came up with the ideas, you made something of them, you own them.

This concept of your words as “intellectual property” is not a global concept. Not every country sees you as the “owner” of ideas that you’ve put into words arranged in a particular order. Some countries place more importance on cooperation when learning or writing. Instead of seeing copying as “cheating”, they might see it as “sharing”. In the US, that is considered plagiarizing.

Other countries feel that knowledge is passed down from the wise masters, so as a student, can what you contribute be better than what a wise master said one hundred years ago? Better to use the wise master’s own words. In the US, that is also considered plagiarizing.

Not every place emphasizes the importance of doing your own work. Maybe no one teaches what plagiarism is. Maybe students have never heard of it. Then, they go to university, and suddenly they get an F on a paper with the word PLAGIARIZED in big red letters! Whether a student did it on purpose or not, in the US, that is still considered plagiarizing.


You can avoid plagiarism by giving credit to the original writer/owner of the work. That is called citing your source.

The concept of joining an ongoing academic conversation

American academics – professors, researchers, writers – see learning and knowledge as a long, ongoing conversation. Students learn from people who came before them, but they have the opportunity to add their own ideas and their own words to the conversation.

For example:

Let’s say you’re in a literature class and you’re learning about Maya Angelou and her memoirs. You are assigned a research paper and you decide to write about how Maya Angelou’s memoirs talk about race.

First of all, where did the idea for your paper come from? If you went to Wikipedia, you might have seen that idea there. It caught your eye and you thought it would be an interesting topic. Would you be the first person ever to write about Maya Angelou’s memoirs and how they depict race?

Absolutely not.

But you would read different writers’ opinions about your topic – that is the research part of your work. Then based on what you read, you would decide what angle you want to approach the topic from. Then, you would come up with your own ideas, inspired by what others have written.

If you consider what other writers have written about your topic as a conversation, you will see that, throughout the years, different writers have contributed different ideas, different interpretations, different insights. Some writers agreed with each other, while others disagreed with everyone. That is how an academic conversation is made.

Then, when you add your own ideas, interpretations, and insights – when you agree or disagree with various writers – you are adding to that long, ongoing conversation.

However, if you instead plagiarized your work and ideas, you would be joining that conversation under false pretenses. If you steal someone else’s work, then you basically are not adding your voice at all.

Plagiarism doesn’t mean you have to come up with 100% original ideas. Some might argue that’s not even possible. However, if you use someone else’s words, you need to give them credit. That’s what it means to cite your source.

What does plagiarism look like?

What is plagiarism? Now that you know it means taking credit for someone else’s work, let’s see what that actually looks like:

  1. What is plagiarism? Paying someone to write an essay for you
    • Just because you paid good money for an essay you didn’t write doesn’t make it yours. The ideas weren’t yours; the words weren’t yours; the work wasn’t yours.
  1. What is plagiarism? Using someone else’s essay
    • Same as above (except that this time, you didn’t even pay, you cheapskate!)
  1. What is plagiarism? Inserting parts of someone else’s work
    • Plagiarizing doesn’t mean you take a whole essay. It can be a paragraph, a sentence, or even a part of a sentence!
    • After how many words would it be considered plagiarizing? It depends. The idea is that plagiarizing means taking credit for someone’s work: the work of taking an idea they thought about, and finding some words to explain that idea. So just using a few words in the same order that someone else wrote isn’t necessarily plagiarism. We all use the words “for example” and we don’t cite them because they don’t explain the idea.
    • If you are taking someone’s ideas expressed in words, no matter how many words there are, that is plagiarism.
  1. What is plagiarism? Making a few changes then submitting as your own
    • Yeah, ok, you changed it. It’s no longer the words of someone else, but it came from someone else’s work.
    • If you make some changes, that’s paraphrasing. But you still can’t use a paraphrase and take credit for it.
  1. What is plagiarism? Reusing your own work and resubmitting
    • Here’s a curveball: You can actually plagiarize yourself. WHAAAAT? Yes, really.
    • If you take an essay you wrote in psychology class and you use it, or part of it, for an essay in lit class, you are plagiarizing yourself. You are trying to get credit for work you didn’t do for that class. Or you’re trying to get credit for the same work twice.
  1. What is plagiarism? Not putting quotation marks on quotes
    • If you’re using someone’s exact words, you show they are the exact words by putting quotation marks around them and then cite them.
    • If you take a sentence someone wrote and change it a little, that is paraphrasing (which also needs to be cited). However, paraphrasing requires your input: you decide which words to change and how to rearrange the order of the words, in order to have the same idea.
    • Paraphrasing has the possibility of not conveying the original writer’s exact idea, since you made changes to their original sentence.
    • For this reason, it’s important to show when it is their original sentence: their words, exactly as they wrote or spoke them. Use quotation marks.
  1. What is plagiarism? Missing citations
    • If you forget to cite a sentence, even if you meant to, even if you cited all the others, that’s still plagiarism. This demonstrates the importance of keeping track of your research and making sure you cite every source.
  1. What is plagiarism? Writing wrong sources
    • Same as above. Keep track of your research and make sure all citations are correct.

What can happen if you plagiarize?

This is very important: plagiarism is an offense, whether you did it on purpose or not; whether you knew about it or not; whether you’re a student or a professional.

There are consequences to committing this offense.

  • Failing grade – you might receive a failing grade for the assignment or for the course.
  • Suspension – you might be suspended from school/college.
  • Expulsion – you might be expelled from school/college.

In the professional realm, plagiarism is even more serious. Academics, journalists, writers, or anyone else who plagiarizes can damage their career. Since plagiarizing is stealing someone’s work then lying about it, what would you think of a journalist who is found guilty of plagiarizing? You wouldn’t believe them anymore, would you? You would doubt their honesty and integrity. Why read anything they wrote if you can longer trust that they wrote it?

This is the seriousness of plagiarizing.

Why is citing sources important?

There is one way to take advantage of the entire collection of human knowledge for your purposes, without plagiarizing:

Cite your sources.

This means you give credit to the person who originally wrote the words or did the work.

Remember that plagiarism includes spoken language, images, graphs, and videos – not just written words. If you heard an amazing TED Talk and you want to include some information in your research paper, you must cite the source.

Why is this important?

Demonstrate that research was conducted

First of all, it shows your audience that you did research. It proves you’re not just making things up or rambling off the top of your head. It gives legitimacy and validity to your work. You want to be taken seriously, right? Show that you did your research.

Show the source of information

Another reason to cite your sources is to show your audience where your information came from. You want your research to be from credible sources. Nowadays with so much information available at your fingertips (literally! Hello Google!), you want to make sure you find information that is real and proven and comes from people who know what they’re talking about.

For example: Let’s say you’re looking for information about climate change. Would you trust an article that was written in the National Enquirer? What about from a website called NewsBuzzDaily? Part of your research is to make sure your sources are reliable and valid.

Allows readers to do follow up

A third reason to cite your sources is so your readers can check the sources if there are any questions. Sometimes, a reader might not understand what you meant with a paraphrase. They can go to the original source and find where you got the information. They can read the original information for themselves.

The last reason to cite your source is so your readers can know where to go if they want additional information about your topic. Some readers just want to dig deeper and citing your source will point them in the direction of more information.

Key takeaways

  • Ideas that you came up with and put into words, speech, graphs, images, or video are your intellectual property. You are the owner.
  • What is plagiarism? It means stealing someone else’s intellectual property and claiming it as your own.
  • Whether it was on purpose or not, whether you knew about it or not, it is still plagiarism and it is still an offense.
  • To avoid plagiarizing, cite your sources

Published October 29, 2020.

By Halina Stolar. Halina has a master’s degree in teaching and taught English as a Second Language and writing for almost 15 years overseas. She now works as a freelance writer, and geeks out over grammar for fun.

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Do “Common knowledge” and “your knowledge” have to match?

Just because you need to look something up doesn’t automatically mean that you have to cite it. Majority rules with common knowledge—so if you asked ten people the name of the first astronaut to walk on the moon and 8 gave the correct answer, you could safely say that the fact is common knowledge and leave it uncited.

Do ideas need citations too?

Many students fall into the trap of assuming that only direct quotations need to be cited. In fact, you should also give credit to the original source of ideas that you’re using or mentioning—unless it’s something so universally known and understood that it could be considered common knowledge. For example, Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Is it possible to plagiarize yourself?

Yes, even using your own work can be classed as plagiarism if you don’t reference it. If you use the same idea twice, you must make your tutor aware by citing yourself and the piece of work in question.

How do online citation tools help with plagiarism?

The good news is that plagiarism is not difficult to avoid. Simply keep a good record of the sources that you use and CitationMachine.com can help do the rest for you. Simply choose between Chicago style formatAPA, or MLA citing format—and many more—to make full citations, parenthetical citations, works cited lists, footnotes, and annotated bibliographies really easy.