Understanding Plagiarism

Understanding Plagiarism and How to Properly Produce Academic Writing

Many students do not understand when and how in their papers they should acknowledge (cite) the use of materials written by others. In high school they may never have been told that paraphrasing encyclopedias or textbooks or cutting and pasting from Internet documents was wrong. But these and other improper uses of sources, called plagiarism, are serious violations of University policy that could lead to your failing an assignment or a course or being suspended or expelled from the University. Should you commit plagiarism in a work you publish, you could face grave legal and financial consequences. Fortunately, it is easy to learn the rules and apply them. If there is ever any doubt, err on the side of acknowledging your source, or ask your instructor.
While most plagiarism is of written material, the same principles apply to anything produced by someone else, such as a painting or a song. They also apply to oral sources. For example, if you take something from a lecture or from an interview or reproduce a picture, you should cite your source.
As you read and take notes on a source you might later use in a paper, you should write down all the information that you will need for a proper citation. You should be especially careful to indicate if any wording in your notes is a direct quotation. This will save you a lot of effort trying to find the information later on, and more importantly help you to avoid inadvertent plagiarism.

The use of sources

The general rule

In your writing, if you use any book (including a textbook, encyclopedia, or other reference work), article, paper, letter, inscription, Web site, song, work of art, or anything else produced by someone else, whether or not it is published and no matter who the writer or creator is — a professional writer, your friend or relative, your roommate, etc. — you must acknowledge this fact appropriately. You must acknowledge the source whether you quote or reproduce it exactly, paraphrase it, or merely use some of its ideas or arguments. You are using its ideas if you follow its organizational structure, even if you do not quote or paraphrase it or use any of its content.

Elaboration on the general rule

  • Any direct quotation must be enclosed in quotation marks, or, if lengthy, set off as a block quotation.
  • Paraphrasing a source does not mean changing a word or two or substituting synonyms. It means completely rewriting in your own words. If you cannot do this you should quote directly.
  • If you paraphrase, but include a phrase (or even a single word if it is an unusual one) from the original source, it should be in quotation marks.
  • You must cite any idea or argument you take from a source, even if you do not quote or paraphrase, and even if you develop that idea or argument beyond what is in the original source.
  • As an extension of the previous point, if the structural organization of your paper or any part of it depends upon someone else’s work, you must cite the source. For example, if the source makes three main points and your paper makes the same three points, you must cite the source, even if you develop those points in your own words.

Exception to the general rule

  • The only exception to the general rule is if the information can be considered common knowledge, which means that ALL of the following are true:
  • It is purely factual, such as that Leon Trotsky was born in 1879 or that the United States Constitution was written in 1787 at Philadelphia.
  • It is widely accepted. If there is difference of opinion on whether the material is true, you should cite your source.
  • It is widely available — found in many sources, such as encyclopedias, biographies, textbooks, etc. If it is an obscure fact, found only, say, in an obscure book, you should cite your source.
  • Even if the information is common knowledge, you must present it in your own words. If you use exact words, you must quote and cite it.

Notes about the rule

  • The rule might give you the impression that you must document literally every statement you make, unless it is entirely original with you (you thought of it without looking at any other material). In fact, you do not have to have a footnote for every sentence you write. You may be able to let one citation cover a whole paragraph or even a series of paragraphs, so long as your intention is clear to the reader.
  • Even if you follow all the rules correctly and everything you write is correct, that does not mean that your paper necessarily deserves a good grade. A good paper has to be largely your own work and thought. If it is merely a patchwork of correctly-cited quotations or paraphrases you will not get a good grade.


Some instructors may require you to have a bibliography at the end of your paper. This should consist of a list of all the sources you used, with the proper information about them.
It is important to note that having a bibliography does not relieve you of the responsibility of citing the use of sources at the particular places in the body of the paper where you used them. If you use endnotes, the bibliography should come at the very end of the paper, after the endnotes.

More information

Following the principles given above carefully will prevent you from committing plagiarism. To understand the problem more clearly and get concrete examples of plagiarism, you should read information developed by the University Libraries of the University of Memphis on avoiding plagiarism. You may be surprised by what you discover there.

Writing Styles (APA, etc.)

There are many guides for citing the use of the words, ideas, or organizational structure of other persons’ writing, by either footnotes (or endnotes) or parenthetical references. Some of your faculty may require APA or others may require a different scholarly writing style. The important thing to do is ask — before you write your paper — which one your instructor wants you to use. The point is that, whatever guide you use, you must cite the use of other persons’ writing, and you should use the form that your instructor requires.