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 get you an "F" in your class, suspended from school, expelled from college or fired from your job. For writers, plagiarism will result in loss of credibility. Federal copyright law protects every individual's expressed ideas and written words, including your own. 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 you do any of the following, you have committed plagiarism: copy what someone has written verbatim, or take someone's expressed idea and pass it off as your own without giving the owner credit, fail to put a quotation in quotes, change words but copy the sentence structure without giving credit, and use so many words or ideas from someone else's writing that it makes up most of your 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 you are writing a paper about "The Cat In The Hat" and you find a paper that portrays the Cat in the Hat as the children's conscience. You think that's a good idea, and you write your paper about it, but you don't credit the original writer for the idea. Even if you don't use any of the same words as the original writer, you are still using his idea as your own. It's true that other people might have that idea, too, but if you didn't think of it until you read that paper, it's plagiarism.
Example of Failing to Put a Quotation in Quotes
Any time you use a quote for a paper, you must put quotation marks around it and credit the speaker and your 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: Put quotes around what the superintendent said and credit him. Then cite the news article.
Example of Changing Words in a Sentence
It is widely and incorrectly thought that if you change 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: Write the sentence in your own words without copying the sentence structure, then cite your source.
Example of Using too Many Words or Ideas from a Source
Even if you write something in your own words but use many of the words or ideas you found in your source, you are 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 you believe the idea yourself, cite your source, either using quotations or parentheses after the sentence.
Ways to Cite Sources
The way you cite your sources will depend on your own preference or the directions of those for whom you are writing. The most common are a bibliography, a footnote or parentheses in the body of your 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.
If you're ever in doubt about whether you should cite a source, go the safe route and cite it. If you are writing for a teacher or professor, you can ask him or her whether you need to cite the source. There are many online tools that will cite references for you in any given style; simply type in the information and the program will spit it back out in the right format.