What Is Plagiarism?

Find out what plagiarism is and how to avoid it.

Defining plagiarism:

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines the act of plagiarism as:

"to steal and pass off the ideas or words of another as one's own"

Plagiarism is simply taking other people's words and/or ideas, using them, and then - rather than giving credit to the person who thought of them, pretending that those words/ideas belong to you.

Let's look at the ways students frequently fall into the plagiarism trap:

Handing in an essay that you didn't write

Some students hand in essays that they find on the Internet; others get someone else to write their essay for them. This is plagiarism because the words and ideas in those essays don't belong to the person submitting it.

Copying words or ideas from someone else's work, without giving credit

Students often find relevant material in books and journals which might even exactly answer the essay question they are dealing with. They often plagiarise by copying words and/or ideas from those sources without giving credit to the author.

Failing to put a quote in quotation marks

Some students forget that when you take material from books or journals and use it word-for-word, you must put it in quotation marks. It is not enough to copy a chunk of text and give a reference - you also need to use quotation marks to show that it is a direct quote.

Giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation

It's tempting to quote the sources that a book or journal cites as their sources - that way, it looks like you've done a lot more reading than you really have. However, unless you've actually read the cited source yourself, this can be considered plagiarism.

Copying sentence structure, but changing words around, without giving credit

It's easy enough to reword books and journals so that most of the words are different: however, if doing this, the student is still copying the structure of the original author's arguments, as well as their ideas, so are committing plagiarism.

Copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not

Some students copy chunks of material from books, journals and other sources. Although they give proper credit through references, most of their work is made up from other people's ideas, and the student’s own ideas on the topic never emerge. Work like this is certainly not original - this is a form of plagiarism.


Believe it or not, you can also be accused of plagiarising your own work. This is because you cannot be awarded two grades/degrees for the same piece of work and using substantial sections of your previous work, however original, is still plagiarism.

Who cares if I plagiarise?

You should.

There are two fundamental reasons why you should not plagiarise:

  1. Plagiarism is stealing: stealing other people's work, words and ideas. It is, morally, no better than stealing a car or anything else. If someone else stole your ideas, how would you feel?
  2. Plagiarism represents information illiteracy. If you plagiarise somebody else’s work, you are implying that you are incapable of explaining your own thoughts and ideas, even if this is not really the case. If you’re caught plagiarising, this will make it appear that you are effectively illiterate when it comes to handling information – not an impression that you want to create!

What you should be aiming for instead is information literacy, which is defined as:

"knowing when and why you need information, where to find it, and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner". Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals
Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals