Plagiarism may not be intentional, but it is still plagiarism. Here are some tips and resources to help clear things up.

Before personal computers and the internet made their way into almost every household and college campus, the only way to obtain information for writing college essays was the printed word. At that time, people took it for granted that almost all written texts were accompanied by one common thing: the name of the author, which was sitting right next to the title. But with the rise of digital information, this one common factor has faded into the background, often to the point of becoming invisible, absent, or difficult to locate. A new relationship emerged between students and the electronic text they use to write papers — that everything in the internet is collectively owned precisely because it is collectively accessible. The hiddenness of authorship and the ease of access both contribute to this attitude. In other words, at the same time as authorship has become more obscured, the reader has been empowered: plagiarism lines blur for students in the digital age.

It is, however, absolutely essential to recognize that the student’s responsibility has not changed. Using someone else’s ideas without proper citations is still stealing someone else’s hard work and presenting as your own. Don’t be deceived into thinking that everything on the internet is free to be used in any way you see fit.

Often students who do plagiarize claim that they have done so accidentally (such as leaving a passage in a paper that wasn’t supposed to be there) or out of ignorance (saying that they misunderstood the rules for plagiarism). Either way, some portion of these folks go one step further and say that they have not plagiarized. They say emphatically that they are good people and that they would never intentionally steal someone else’s work and present it as their own. What these student’s fail to understand is that being a good person and not intentionally plagiarizing is entirely irrelevant to the question of whether or not there was plagiarism in the paper. Plagiarism is what is on the page of the submitted document, period, not what kind of person or actions led to the making of that document. The fact is that you are responsible for understanding plagiarism and not doing it from the moment you walk in the classroom on your first day. Plagiarism is explained in just about every student handbook across the nation. Moreover, if there is any confusion, any professor should be able to clarify the matter for you. Therefore, the claim that students make that they have not plagiarized, even when they admit using someone else’s work without proper citations, not only misunderstands what plagiarism is, but also misunderstands both their basic responsibilities as students and the resources available to them to overcome any technical misunderstandings.

As I always tell my students, it is a good thing to use quotes when writing a paper. If used with proper moderation, they are an essential part of the argument. In fact, not having textual evidence is like walking into a courtroom to prosecute an accused murder, but not bothering to bring the murder weapon. A jury needs concrete evidence to be convinced of a prosecutor’s argument, not just a persuasive speech. So please take the time to figure out how to use textual evidence and researched facts in your papers; it is a worthwhile investment. Having a citation linked to such evidence is like having a fingerprint on the murder weapon. A prosecutor who presents a weapon to the jury but has no way of linking it back to the accused is also not going to be very persuasive. Likewise, you need to connect your quotes and facts back to their proper source so that they carry their full weight in your arguments.

All too many times, I have witnessed students resort to plagiarism who feel overwhelmed by the material or who run out of time writing a paper. The solution to the problems that may lead students to this bad decision is not stealing other people’s work. The solution is asking your professor for help with the ideas, or requesting an extension, prior to the deadline. The excuse that you accidentally left in some writing from an outside source is not an excuse but a failure of responsibility. It is your responsibility as a student to know what the rules are for plagiarism. Please do not sacrifice your academic career out of panic or negligence.

Here are some links to a number of excellent websites dealing with issues of plagiarism, ranging from a quiz designed to help students understand what constitutes plagiarism to resources for faculty and graduate assistants:

Resources for students

Penn State Libraries | Plagiarism Quiz

Teaching and Learning with Technology | Plagiarism Tutorial for Students

Rock Ethics Institute Academic Integrity Vignettes videos on plagiarism, self-plagiarism, group work, and stolen tests

Teaching and Learning with Technology | Penn State Plagiarism Links

Teaching and Learning with Technology | Citation Guidelines and “Common Knowledge”

Penn State Libraries | Citation and Writing Guides

Penn State Libraries | Plagiarism and you handout


Resources for Faculty and Graduate Assistants

Rock Ethics Institute Academic Integrity Vignettes videos on plagiarism, self-plagiarism, group work, and stolen tests

Teaching and Learning with Technology | Plagiarism Detection and Prevention: An Instructor Guide

Penn State Policies on Academic Integrity: Syllabus Statement

Penn State Undergraduate Advising Handbook: Statement on Academic Integrity

Academic Policies and Statements by College/Campus



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