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 them.
Copying words or ideas from someone else's work, without giving credit
Students often find relevant material in books and journals that exactly answers 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 credit afterwards - 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. But unless you've actually gone and read the cited source, this is plagiarism.
Copying sentence structure but changing words around, without giving credit
It's easy enough to reword books and journals so that 50% or more of the words are different. But in that case, the student is still copying the structure of the original author's arguments, as well as their ideas, and is plagiarising.
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 credit, most of their work is made up from other people's work. It's certainly not original - this is plagiarism.
You can also be accused of plagiarising your own work, believe it or not. 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?
There are two fundamental reasons why you should not plagiarise:
- Plagiarism is simply stealing: stealing other people's work, words and ideas. It is morally no better than stealing a car, or anything else. If someone stole your words and ideas, think how you'd feel.
- Plagiarism represents information illiteracy. What does that mean? It means if you have to plagiarise, clearly, you are incapable of researching and assimilating your own thoughts and ideas. You are effectively illiterate when it comes to handling information.
What you should be aiming for instead is information literacy.
Information Literacy is:
"is knowing when and why you need information, where to find it, and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner".