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Information Ethics

What is Plagiarism?

What is Plagiarism? 

Simply put, plagiarism is taking credit for someone else's ideas or work. 

While most people know not to simply copy and paste an entire essay, which is the most egregious form of plagiarism, there are many other types of plagiarism. This page will explain why it is so important to properly attribute and cite your sources, and what resources are available to help you avoid plagiarizing.


Can words and ideas actually be stolen?

U.S. law tells us that words and ideas can be stolen. The expression of original ideas is considered intellectual property and is protected by copyright laws, just like original inventions. Almost all forms of expression fall under copyright protection as long as they are recorded in some way (such as a book or a computer file). Learn more about copyright (and exceptions) here.

All of the following are considered plagiarism:

  • turning in someone else's work as your own
  • copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit
  • failing to put a quotation in quotation marks
  • giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation
  • changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit
  • copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not


Can media be plagiarized?

Using an image, video or piece of music in a work you have produced without receiving proper permission or providing appropriate citation is plagiarism. The following activities are very common in today’s society. Despite their popularity, they still count as plagiarism.

  • Copying media (especially images) from other websites to paste them into your own papers or websites.

  • Making a video using footage from others’ videos or using copyrighted music as part of the soundtrack.

  • Performing another person’s copyrighted music (i.e., playing a cover).

  • Composing a piece of music that borrows heavily from another composition.

The legality of these situations, and others, would be dependent upon the intent and context within which they are produced. The two safest approaches to take in regards to these situations is: 1) Avoid them altogether or 2) Confirm the works’ usage permissions and cite them properly.

How can I avoid plagiarism?

Most cases of plagiarism can be avoided, however, by using the following techniques.

  • Quotations:  To quote a source, copy the passage exactly word for word, and put the copied passage in quotation marks. Following the quote, cite the source you got your quote from. If you are quoting a long passage, be sure to use block indentation and then follow with a citation.
  • Summarizing: To summarize a passage, read the entire passage, then take the main ideas of the source and put them into your own words. Be sure to cite your source if you summarize.
  • Paraphrasing: To paraphrase, restate the information from a source using your own words. A paraphrased passage will be about the same length as the original passage. One way to paraphrase a passage is to use an tag attributing the source, such as "According to Albert Einstein,...". Learn how to paraphrase here.

If you use the techniques above, simply acknowledging that certain material has been borrowed and providing your audience with the information necessary to find that source is usually enough to prevent plagiarism. See our section on APA, MLA and CSE citations for more information on how to cite sources properly.

Why should I cite?

There are a number of reasons why you should cite your sources. Here are a few of the things citing helps you do:

1) Citing your sources helps show all the hard work you have put into locating credible sources.

2) Citing your sources will help readers understand the context of your argument, and can help support your argument.

3) Citations allow you to recognize the authors that contributed to your learning.

4) Citing your sources will allow others to find the information you found; this can allow readers to learn more about your topic.

5) Citing your sources is the ethical thing to do! Citing demonstrates that you are building from and contributing to the scholarly conversation. 


What should I cite?

You should cite the following information:

  • any idea which is not common knowledge
  • statistics, data, graphs or artwork
  • quotes from speeches or movies
  • paraphrases of someone's work
  • theories of information from research
  • ideas or content from a paper YOU previously wrote (this is called self-citing)

You don't need to cite:

  • common knowledge (ex. George Washington was the first president of the United States.)
  • personal experiences
  • your own words, ideas or original research 
  • common sayings/idioms (ex. The early bird gets the worm.)

ProTip: If you aren't sure whether or not you should cite something, you should cite it! If your instructor doesn't think the citation is necessary, he/she will let you know.

Additional Resources on Plagiarism

Explore the following sites to find out more about what plagiarism is and how to avoid it!