College Guide to Preventing Plagiarism

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Plagiarism is a problem for colleges across America. Not only does it hurt students who face the consequences of plagiarism, it also hurts professors who have to spend valuable time detecting instances of plagiarization.

Preventing plagiarism isn’t just about ethics and fairness — it’s about helping students get the most out of education. Understanding plagiarism and proper citations is therefore as relevant for those still in high school as those pursuing a bachelor’s degree, or even students earning advanced degrees.

This resource intends to help college students and potential college students understand what plagiarism is and how to prevent it. Here, you’ll find a definition of plagiarism and will learn how it differs from copyright infringement. This guide provides examples of different types of plagiarism, details the consequences, and offers tips to avoiding it. Lastly, you’ll learn about plagiarism detection tools.

What Is the Definition of Plagiarism?

The word plagiarism comes from the Latin word plagiarius, which means “kidnapper who abducts a child.”

Plagiarism is the act of stealing someone else’s writing and claiming it as your own. This applies to ideas as much as it does the words you use to convey ideas. An author’s original words and ideas are their intellectual property. If you steal someone else’s words and/or ideas and claim they’re yours, you’re committing an act of fraud.

Colleges prohibit plagiarism because it goes against ethical guidelines and against everything higher education stands for. According to the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), “An ethical writer ALWAYS acknowledges the contributions of others to his/her work.” A writer who doesn’t do so faces academic sanctions; they may also face legal ramifications for copyright infringement.

Copyright infringement and plagiarism overlap, but there is a fine-grained difference due to the existence of copyright law.

The 2018 guide to copyright and plagiarism outlines the difference between the two:

  • Copyright infringement is the act of reproducing someone else’s work without permission. Unauthorized reproduction is a violation of the law because copyright law states that once you give tangible form to an idea — whether it takes the form of art, writing, photography, or digital code — it becomes your property.
  • Plagiarism is the act of claiming someone else’s words or ideas are your own. This applies to works that are no longer under copyright law.

According to ORI, you’re infringing on copyright even if you cite the source of a text and reproduce a substantial, extensive portion of the text. Yet authors and other creators must be able to quote and refer to external sources within reason. Therefore, if you quote or borrow a relatively small portion of someone else’s work and cite your source, you’re protected under the “fair use” provision of the law.

If you use a relatively small portion of someone else’s words or ideas, and fail to attribute your source, you’re plagiarizing. Or, if you reproduce a work that’s no longer protected under copyright law, and fail to provide attribution, you’re plagiarizing.

Copyright law states that works published before 1923 are no longer protected by copyright law; works published between 1922 and 1978 are protected for 95 years from the date of publication. Works created before 1978 but not published till after that year are protected as long as the creator is alive, plus 70 years after their death.

Types of Plagiarism with Examples

In today’s online learning environment, the majority of plagiarization involves snippets of text from multiple sources all over the web. This results in a patchwork of stolen ideas, phrases, and statistics. That being said, there are multiple types of plagiarism involving online and offline sources.

Accidental Plagiarism

Accidental plagiarism occurs when you include information from a source or paraphrase a source but forget to provide attribution. It’s rare, but you could end up accidentally plagiarizing an author if you’ve been reading their work a lot and then you have to write a paper on one of their subjects. A lack of sleep and a surplus of stress over a heavy workload could contribute to accidental plagiarism.

Students may also end up committing accidental plagiarism when they assume a fact is common knowledge, and therefore that they don’t need to cite the source.


Original text:

“This new way of interpreting signs is called the rebus principle. Only a few examples of its use exist in the earliest stages of cuneiform from between 3200 and 3000 B.C. The consistent use of this type of phonetic writing only becomes apparent after 2600 B.C.” – Metropolitan Museum of Arts, The Origins of Writing

Accidental plagiarism:

After 2600 B.C., ancient humans consistently began interpreting symbols with what is known as the “rebus principle,” a type of phonetic construct that prefigured the alphabets humans employ today.

In this case, the perpetrator of accidental plagiarism assumed that the facts about the history of writing are common knowledge. They would only be common knowledge to a select group of people who specialize in the history of the written word — even then, there would be some doubt, so the author would need to provide attribution.

Direct Plagiarism

Direct plagiarism is cut-and-dried. When someone directly plagiarizes a text, they copy and paste another author’s exact words.


Original text:

Whether writing about past trauma, significant life events or empty-nest syndrome, we as writers feel compelled to put our experiences eloquently into words and share our stories with the world. And creativity is our wellspring, the spark that ignites our writing. – Writer’s Digest, How to Harness Creativity to Empower Your Writing

Direct plagiarism:

Despite the risk of putting ourselves out there, we as writers feel compelled to put our experiences eloquently into words and share our stories with the world. And creativity is our wellspring, the spark that ignites our writing.

Complete Plagiarism

Complete plagiarism, or full plagiarism, is the act of copying and pasting someone else’s words with absolutely no modification. Students who contract their work out to paper mills are guilty of complete plagiarism because none of the words in a paper are their own. Likewise, if a student finds a pre-existing academic paper and simply copies and pastes its contents in entirety, that counts as complete plagiarism.


Original text:

Plagiarism – the attempt to pass off the ideas, research, theories or words of others as one’s own – is a serious academic offence. A new study by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority warns that exam boards appear to be failing to spot cheating, even though the number of cases of fraud is increasing. Last year, 3,600 teenagers were caught breaching the rules – a 9% rise on the previous year. – Stephen Moss, A history of plagiarism (not my own work)

Complete plagiarism:

Plagiarism – the attempt to pass off the ideas, research, theories or words of others as one’s own – is a serious academic offence. A new study by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority warns that exam boards appear to be failing to spot cheating, even though the number of cases of fraud is increasing. Last year, 3,600 teenagers were caught breaching the rules – a 9% rise on the previous year.

(Note: complete plagiarism would be the case in which the rest of the source text is also copied. The above example demonstrates copying with absolutely no additional words contributed by the plagiarizer, which is a feature of complete plagiarism.)


Self-plagiarism is the act of using your exact words from a previous assignment and passing them off as new. The most egregious level of self-plagiarism is the case in which a student takes an old assignment and turns it in unmodified, claiming the work is new and original. Copying a paragraph or sentence from an old assignment can also qualify as self-plagiarism.

Any time you take a section from your old work and include it in a new assignment without modifying it, updating it, or citing the source, it counts as self-plagiarism.


Original text:

“As online education becomes more popular, it is important for current and prospective online students to understand that they can also study abroad.” – Maryville University Online, Studying Abroad as an Online Student)


Many students want to travel abroad, and some think that online students don’t have the same opportunities as students who attend universities in person. But as online education becomes more popular, it is important for current and prospective online students to understand that they can also study abroad.

Paraphrasing Plagiarism

Paraphrasing is the act of interpreting a statement’s meaning and putting it in different words that impart the same meaning to the reader. Paraphrasing helps authors express ideas in terms that suit the tone of their writing. Authors also paraphrase in order to simplify or clarify a statement. Since ideas are intellectual property, you have to cite your source when you paraphrase a statement. If you don’t credit the original author, it’s plagiarism.


Original text:

“The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of small differences: because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence.” – Malcolm Gladwell, What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures

Paraphrasing plagiarism:

To make themselves look good despite a dearth of original ideas, editors and journalists have become overzealous about policing individual sentences for minute plagiarism violations. It’s not about ethics as much as it it self-aggrandizement.

Source-based Plagiarism

Source-based plagiarism occurs when an author attributes a quote, paraphrase, or other form of intellectual property to a false or nonexistent source. It can also occur when an author attributes information or data to a primary source, but fails to cite a secondary source on purpose.


Original texts:

“McCabe’s surveys of over 70,000 high school students at over 24 high schools in the United States demonstrated that 64 percent of students admitted to cheating on a test, 58 percent admitted to plagiarism and 95 percent said they participated in some form of cheating.”International Center for Academic Integrity

“86 percent of college students say they’ve cheated. It’s easier than ever with mobile devices.” –

Source-based plagiarism:

According to Dr. Donald McCabe, who conducted a massive survey, 58 percent of high school students admitted to plagiarism, and 86 percent of college students said they’ve cheated by using their mobile device.  

Inaccurate Authorship

Inaccurate authorship plagiarism occurs when an author contributes material to a group paper but the primary author(s) don’t give them any credit. Or, it’s the opposite: an author gets credit in a group paper to which they made no contribution.

Consequences of Plagiarism

There are two categories when it comes to the repercussions of plagiarism: academic and legal. For students, academic consequences are the most common. However, if the violation is also a copyright infringement, and the rights holder decided to press charges, there will also be legal consequences.

Academic Consequences of Plagiarism for College Students

The consequences of plagiarism depend on the seriousness and persistence of the offense, on university policy, and on the discretion of faculty. The consequences of plagiarism at the university level may include the following:

  • You could fail the assignment in question.
  • You could receive a lower grade or a failing grade in the course.
  • You could get kicked out of the course.
  • You may face disciplinary probation, which includes a behavioral contract by which you must abide.
  • You could even get dismissed from the academic program or expelled from the university.

Just like a low grade, a dismissal due to plagiarism hurts a student’s academic record.

Students who plagiarize face the possibility of legal consequences when the violation also counts as copyright infringement. For copyright infringement, the legal penalties are as follows:

  • Misdemeanor offense: If you reproduce and distribute less than 10 copies of a copyrighted work, or the retail value of your reproductions doesn’t exceed $2,500, you’ll get hit with a misdemeanor and could face up to a year in jail or a fine of up to $100,000.
  • First major offense: If you reproduce and distribute 1 copyrighted work, or more than 10 copies of it, and the retail value of the works in question exceeds $2,500, you could face up to 5 years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000, or both.
  • Second major offense: The second time you’re caught committing a major copyright infringement, you could face up to 10 years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000, or both.

In other words, the first time you take someone’s work and turn it in as your own, you could spend up to a year in jail or pay up to $100,000.

Preventing Plagiarism in College

There are multiple scenarios in which the issue of plagiarism may come up for you as an online student. You could get involved in a study group and a member of the group could steal your words or ideas without your knowledge. Or, you could be victim of cyber-theft. Alternatively, you could get sloppy and accidentally plagiarize someone else’s work, or your own.

In a study group, you’re going to have to be able to prove you wrote your paper before the group shared work with each other. Simply save your work to a hard drive after you first finish. This will automatically put a date and time-stamp on your work. Don’t share your work with anyone before you’ve had the chance to save it. If a group sharing session turns into a plagiarism session, you can provide evidence that you wrote your piece before the group session took place.

To avoid cyber-theft, acquaint yourself with the best practices of digital citizenship and cyber security. Maintain strong passwords, stay off of insecure sites, ignore emails asking for personal information unless you know the source and are expecting the email and don’t interact with suspicious people online.

To avoid accidental plagiarism, consider the following:

  • Use Maryville University’s online research toolkit, which includes information on citing your sources correctly in different styles.
  • If you do make a mistake citing your sources, know how to defend yourself. The Council of Writing Program Administrators points out that discussions of plagiarism “conflate plagiarism with the misuse of sources.” If you misuse a source, show your professor how you’ve made a good-faith effort citing other sources, and show any notes that demonstrate train of thought.
  • In your notes, keep a detailed, running list of all sources of ideas. If your notes are on computer, provide hyperlinks. If they’re handwritten — or you’re referencing a hard-copy book — note the author, title, and page. recommends using different colored fonts for each source and clearly delineating which ideas aren’t yours in your notes.
  • If a quote pops into your head but you’re not sure of the source, type your version of the quote into a search engine and see if there’s a quote that contains any of the same words. Then, quote the original author and provide attribution as per class guidelines.
  • If an idea comes up and you know it’s not your own, encapsulate it in a phrase and search for it online. If your version is a variation on the original, paraphrase the original, cite it, and then present your variation.
  • Prioritize sleep and time management strategies during high-stress times — that is, during times when you have to write papers, take tests, and work on assignments. The clearer your thinking, the less likely you are to steal someone else’s words and ideas unintentionally.
  • If you end up writing a paper quickly during a high-stress time and everything’s a bit blurry, enter the text of your paper into a plagiarism checker afterwards. If you did in fact plagiarize words accidentally, go back, paraphrase them, and cite the source of the idea, or quote the author directly and provide attribution.
  • Refer back to ORI’s guidelines. Note guideline 8: “When in doubt as to whether a concept or fact is common knowledge, provide a citation.”
  • During times when you’re mixing in your ideas with other people’s ideas, be very clear about which ideas are yours and which are not.

It will be obvious to your professor if you make a good-faith effort to avoid plagiarism and simply make a mistake. Additionally, it is worthwhile to make use of plagiarism checkers to help you catch accidental plagiarism.

Plagiarism Detection Tools

  • PaperRater: Uses artificial intelligence to compare your text with over 10 billion online documents. The basic, free version includes 10 plagiarism checks per month.
  • Grammarly: Checks your text against an academic database of documents and 16 billion online documents. The free version tells you what percentage of your text contains duplicate content.
  • Quetext: Compares texts with a database of 20 million books, 35 billion webpages, and 1 million academic journals. Quetext claims that their algorithm can “even find text that has been slightly rewritten.”
  • iThenticate: Claims that a third of scholarly journals use it to check for plagiarism. Compares texts with 49 million scholarly documents, 105 million published works from journals, periodicals, magazines, encyclopedias, and abstracts, as well as 60 billion live and archived web pages.
  • WriteCheck: By Turnitin, checks your work against 250 million student papers, over 110,000 million published books, and 24 billion web pages.

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