The word "plagiarism" comes from the Latin "plagium," which means "kidnapping." Plagiarism is a widely misunderstood concept, and yet its consequences are dire. A charge of plagiarism can earn a student an "F" in class, suspension from school, or expulsion from college. A person in the workforce who is guilty of plagiarism may find themselves fired from a job. For writers, plagiarism will result in loss of credibility.
Federal copyright law protects every individual's expressed ideas and written words. In any case of plagiarism, there is a risk of large fines or even imprisonment, depending on the circumstances. Knowing what constitutes plagiarism is key.
What Constitutes Plagiarism?
If a writer does any of the following, he has committed plagiarism: copying what someone has written verbatim, or taking someone's expressed idea and passing it off as his own without giving the owner credit, failing to put a quotation in quotes, changing words but copying the sentence structure without giving credit, and using so many words or ideas from someone else's writing that it makes up most of a work.
Example of Copying
Copying is writing word-for-word what someone else has already written. Example: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. Plagiarized: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. Correct: "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." (Jones, 1856)
Example of Using Ideas As Your Own
Say a student is writing a paper about "The Cat In The Hat" and finds a paper that portrays the Cat in the Hat as the children's conscience. The writer thinks that's a good idea, and writes her paper about it, but she doesn't credit the original writer for the idea. Even if the student doesn't use any of the same words as the original writer, she is still using his idea as her own. It's true that other people might have that idea, too, but if the student doesn't think of it until she reads a paper, it's plagiarism.
Example of Failing to Put a Quotation in Quotes
Any time a writer uses a quote for a paper, he must put quotation marks around it and credit the speaker and the source.
Example: The new school will be built on the outskirts of town. "Our capacity is almost 100 percent," says Superintendent Jones. "We really need this new school."
Plagiarized: Knickerbocker Elementary will be built on South Smith Road. The district's capacity is almost 100 percent; they need this new school.
Correct: The writer puts quotation marks around what the superintendent said and credits him. Then she cites the news article.
Example of Changing Words in a Sentence
It is widely and incorrectly thought that if a writer changes the words in a sentence, it isn't plagiarism. Example: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. Plagiarism: The fast tan fox hops across the idle canine. Correct: The writer describes the scene in his own words without copying the sentence structure, then cites his source.
Example of Using too Many Words or Ideas from a Source
Even if a writer uses her own words but uses many of the words or ideas found in a source, she is committing plagiarism. Example: I believe all children should have the basic necessities, such as clothing, food, shelter and nurturing adults who take care of them. Plagiarism: Every child needs the basic things in life, including adults who love them, food, clothing and a roof over their heads. Correct: This is an opinion; it's someone else's idea.
Even if the writer believes the idea, she should cite her source, either using quotations or parentheses after the sentence.
Ways to Cite Sources
The way writers cite sources depends on their personal preference or the directions of an assignment. The most common are a bibliography, a footnote or parentheses in the body of the writing. A bibliography is a listing of sources at the end of a paper. A footnote cites the source at the bottom of the page. Parentheses will contain the full citation the first time, and an abbreviated version for further citations of that source.
Help in Avoiding Plagiarism
If a writer is ever in doubt about whether he should cite a source, he should go the safe route and cite it. Students can ask a teacher or professor whether they need to cite a source. There are many online tools that will cite references in any given style. The user types in the information and the program will spit it back out in the right format.