What Is Plagiarism?

It is plagiarism when you take something out of a book and use it as your own.  If you take it out of several books then it is research. — Ralph Foss quoting Wilson Mizner

One moon shows in every pool, in every pool the one moon. – Zen Proverb

As a concept, plagiarism is easy to grasp: you take someone else’s work and pass it off as your own.  In practice, plagiarism can be a slippery little sucker, eeling away to hide amongst quotations, fair use, common knowledge, and figures of speech.

Even worse, there is a distinct difference between academic plagiarism and the kind that happens off-campus.

Fortunately, the complexities of plagiarism can be navigated with confidence as long as we remember that the crime is a combination of theft and fraud.  The value of the stolen object comes from the originality of its idea and/or the quality of its prose.  The level of fraud depends on what is extorted from the victim.

In school, plagiarism occurs when the student tries to defraud the teacher of a grade by convincing the teacher they created something actually written by someone else.  It does not matter if the actual author – such as a friend or a Website – agrees to this fraud.  That only makes them an accomplice.

Professional plagiarism, however, requires that the original author does not give permission for the use of their work.  For instance, an unknown song writer gets their tune stolen by a popular band.  Even if the ditty turns out to be a dud, the song writer is the victim of theft, regardless of whether the song were copyrighted.

However, people who take from the author with permission are not plagiarists. Speech writers, ghost writers, and the like may give or sell their work if they want to.  While the public may feel defrauded when they learn some actor’s “autobiography” was actually written by someone else, well, cry me a river.

But, you may ask, what about when the original author is dead?  The moral answer is that passing off any dead guy’s work as your own is definitely plagiarism.  The real answer is to get a lawyer to check if the estate holds a copyright.

So by understanding just what plagiarism is, we can tell when and how plagiarism occurs.

Scenario 1:

John gets an assignment in his history class to write a five-page paper on Thomas
Edison.  He goes to Wikipedia and copies and pastes five pages of stuff.  The only thing he actually writes is his name.  Then he puts the whole paper inside quotation marks and lists Wikipedia on his Works Cited page.

Has plagiarism occurred?

No.  John indicated exactly what he took and where he got it from.  He still gets an F for being a lazy twit, but he hasn’t violated the honor code.

Scenario 2:

Jane writes an article for the local newspaper on pollution in the drinking water.  Stressing to meet her deadline, she goes into the paper’s “morgue” and finds an article written twenty years ago by some guy.  She takes a few lines about the responsibilities of the government to keep the public safe.

Has plagiarism occurred?

Yes.  She’s stolen from the author and defrauded the newspaper.

Scenario 2 -a:

Jane writes an article for the local newspaper on pollution in the drinking water.  Stressing to meet her deadline, she worries her last paragraph is really dull and livens up her prose with a famous but unaccredited phrase from Shakespeare: “to thine own self be true.”

Has plagiarism occurred?

No.  Jane assumes that the reader will recognize the quote and that no one will think it’s her original phrase.  The credit to Shakespeare is left out because she deems it unnecessary, not because she’s being deceptive.

Scenario 3:

Jose get an assignment in his third grade class to give a presentation on choo-choo trains.  He goes home and asks his parents about it, then he watches a couple of shows on TV about trains.  His friend has a father who works on trains, and he shows him some drawings of the inside of a locomotive.  Jose eventually draws his own picture of a train and shows it to the class while telling them about the things he’s learned.  He gives no credit to anyone but himself.

Has plagiarism occurred?

No.  Though the information was new to Jose, he gathered up common knowledge and presented it in his own words.  No one in the class thinks he’s pretending he invented trains or is the first person to talk about them.

Scenario 4:

Josie is writing a dissertation on President Bill Clinton.  She’s fortunate enough to get a personal interview with him.  It lasts for hours.  She puts sections of the interview in her book, taking care to attribute them all correctly.  She particularly likes his discussion of regulation and its effects on the economy.  Worried that the dissertation is getting “quote heavy,” she takes several of his sentences explaining the basics, substitutes a few words, and leaves off the quotation marks.

Has plagiarism occurred?

Yes.  Changing a few words still makes Clinton the co-author of the sentences, and removing the quotation marks means the reader will assume the passages are wholly original to her.

Scenario 5:

You are writing a seven-page research paper on the history of origami.  You want to include information you found on the specific qualities of good origami paper.  While this information is new to you, it may well be common knowledge in Japan.  You decide to put in the information without citing a source.

Has plagiarism occurred?

I’d say no, but other teachers might say yes.  Why take a chance?  When you’re unsure, ask your teacher. Consult with a dissertation editor. Ask your dissertation editing service to run a report and/or flag any suspicious passages.  If you’re finishing the paper the night before and can’t ask, cite your source.  Nobody ever got sent to the principal for  being too careful with their quotes.