Plagiarism Is Complicated Stuff
We all know we’re not supposed to plagiarize, but what exactly does that mean? Taking ideas from someone else? Copying their words directly? Quoting someone else’s language without citing it? As with most things in writing classes, it turns out that plagiarism is contextual. The expectations for attribution and originality shift along with culture, academic discipline, and medium. We’ll talk more about all of that later in this chapter.
But just because plagiarism is a contextual, slippery concept doesn’t mean that it’s unimportant or impossible to track what counts as plagiarism. In fact, as an author, it lies exclusively with you to track where the ideas you’re working with come from, to attribute them properly, and to understand exactly what constitutes plagiarism in the first place so that you can steer clear of it. One of our favorite sources for understanding citation practices, the Purdue OWL, defines plagiarism as “using someone else’s ideas or words without giving them proper credit” (“Plagiarism Overview”). It can certainly be difficult to trace where someone else’s ideas start and where yours begin or where your paraphrasing of a source starts and the original language you’re building from ends. But even accounting for those blurry lines, it’s still never OK to pass someone else’s work off as your own.
In this chapter, we’ll talk about how to navigate those blurry lines between working with someone’s ideas and co-opting them and between paraphrasing a source and patchwriting from it. We’ll also look at the deeper cultural perceptions of originality and attribution. By the end, you’ll have a sense for how to avoid plagiarism and, more importantly, why to avoid it.
So What Exactly Is Plagiarism Again?
Let’s break it down. We know that plagiarism involves including other peoples’ ideas or language in your work without attribution. But one of the reasons that plagiarism can feel so fuzzy is that it can be difficult to trace what exactly counts as “including other peoples’ ideas” or what kind of attribution is needed. There’s also a spectrum of severity when it comes to plagiarism, ranging everywhere from letting an author’s phrasing slip into your work without putting quotation marks around it to full-on copy-and-pasting paragraphs from a source without a citation. There’s even such a thing as self-plagiarism, which involves copying your own writing from a previous context or assignment and including it in a new piece of writing without alerting your reader (or, in many cases, your instructor).
In most academic contexts you’re likely to encounter in an American college setting, the following can be considered plagiarism:
- Copying wholesale phrases, sentences, or paragraphs from another source without citing, either in the in-text citations or in the works cited / reference list.
- Including language from an outside source without putting it in quotation marks, even if the work appears in your works cited or reference list.
- Patchwriting, or following too closely with the language of a source you’re paraphrasing without putting quotation marks around borrowed phrases—again, even if the source appears in your works cited! (There’s more on the difference between paraphrasing and patchwriting below.)
- Fabricating citations or making up where you found a quotation because you don’t remember where you found it originally.
- Incorporating an original idea that comes directly from another source without attribution.
- Plagiarizing yourself or reusing your own writing from a previous piece of writing. Yes, that means it is appropriate to cite yourself if you want to reference your own writing in a new context!
Whew! That feels like a lot, to the point where including sources might start to feel like a landmine of potential mistakes. But so long as you (1) pay careful attention to where your sources come from and express that in your work, (2) stay mindful of the expectations set by your instructor for proper citations, and (3) treat other peoples’ writing and ideas with respect and good faith, you’ll be just fine.
Paraphrasing and Patchwriting: What’s the Difference?
When you’re working right alongside another author’s ideas and putting their language into your own words, it’s easy to slip up and let your sentences hew too close to theirs. Before we dive into the tips and tricks for paraphrasing effectively and avoiding patchwriting, let’s take a look at what each of these terms means.
Paraphrasing means rephrasing another author’s ideas in your own words without using any of their exact wording (“Paraphrasing”). That sentence is a paraphrase of Purdue OWL’s definition of paraphrasing, because I communicated the main idea of their quote without copying it word for word. You might think of paraphrasing as a form of mental digestion—you need to fully understand a quotation and have your own sense of what it means before you can communicate it in your own way.
Patchwriting is when an author attempts to paraphrase a quotation but borrows too much language without putting quotation marks around it. In essence, patchwriting is shoddy paraphrasing! Here’s an example: say I was trying to paraphrase this quote from the Purdue OWL, as I did above:
Quotation: “Paraphrasing is one way to use a text in your own writing without directly quoting source material. Anytime you are taking information from a source that is not your own, you need to specify where you got that information” (“Paraphrasing”).
Patchwritten version: Paraphrasing is when you use a source in your own words without directly quoting the material. Wherever you take information from somewhere else, you have to specify where you got it (“Paraphrasing”).
Do you see all the similarities there? By reusing phrases like “without directly quoting” and closely following the structure of the second sentence, I’ve patchwritten this source. The main problem is that I didn’t put quotation marks around the borrowed language, which means that even though I used in-text citations at the end, this would still count as plagiarism. That may seem extreme, since the passage does show where the information comes from originally. There are indeed some small exceptions to this rule—namely, when you’re citing statistics or numbers that would be impossible to phrase in another way. But in general, by failing to show which phrases are borrowed from the original source, you are passing others’ words off as your own—and that takes us back to the definition of plagiarism at the start of the chapter.
Patchwriting happens increasingly often when students are working side by side with internet resources, and in the world of social media, borrowing and freely sharing ideas happens all the time. It’s also hard to trace originality when we’re using common phrases, including phrases like “put it into your own words” that appear in this chapter. It might make you wonder if you need to cite every single phrase in your paper, even if you can’t track down who said it first! We could certainly do a deep dive into the question of whether an author can ever be truly original (and hopefully you will do so in class!), but for now, recall what we said about using sources in good faith: if you know a phrase came from a specific source, that’s when you’re responsible for fully paraphrasing, putting quotes around the directly borrowed phrases, and giving full attribution.
How Can I Avoid Patchwriting?
- If the quote expresses the idea so well that you’re having trouble rephrasing it, quote it directly! Do check with your instructor that direct quotations are allowed—in science writing or tech writing, direct quotations might be banned!
- To help with paraphrasing, write or type out the quote in one place, then fully rephrase it on paper or on a different screen without looking at the original so that you’re not overly influenced by the original language. You may need to do that a few times to digest what the quote is saying and how you’d frame it yourself.
- Think about why you’re including the quotation in the first place: Is the specific language central to the reader’s understanding of the subject? If so, quote directly. If you’re trying to distill the idea and weave it more smoothly into your own content, paraphrase it. And in both cases, cite it!
Why Is Academia So Strict about Plagiarism?
You might be thinking that all of this sounds rather nitpicky, or even like a mode of gatekeeping to catch students out in an honest mistake. And honestly, you’d be at least partially right: accusations of plagiarism can come along with assumptions about who is capable of crafting original thoughts or what kinds of students are more likely to misunderstand or willfully misinterpret academic standards for citations. International students, people newer to academic settings, or people who are fluent in more than one language have been disproportionately accused of plagiarism, either because cultural differences lead them to view citation practices differently or because they don’t have as much practice with the academic conventions for citation (Mott-Smith 251; Bloch 223–224). And that’s not to mention the implicit biases that instructors might carry about students who don’t already come in equipped with knowledge of citation practices in their discipline.
Academic notions of plagiarism are also complicated by the fact that across other industries and media, creators borrow—or outright steal—from each other all the time. For example, Apple is notorious for taking ideas from new apps available in the App Store and building them directly into the Mac operating system, in a move that’s common enough to have the nickname “Sherlocking” (Albergotti). The music industry sees constant lawsuits targeting pop artists like Dua Lipa, Olivia Rodrigo, and Sam Smith for cribbing from other musicians, though it’s always sticky to figure out where commonly adapted musical styles end and copyright-protected expressions begin (Finell, qtd. in Shanfeld). And when students themselves occupy an information environment where sharing, reposting, and memeifying are the norm, it’s not surprising that academia’s tough take on originality can feel baffling and arcane.
Any discussion of plagiarism raises complicated questions about authorship, intellectual property, and whether full originality is even possible. The freedom to build on others’ ideas without fear of being slapped with an accusation of plagiarism is important to students’ academic growth, and scholars in writing studies are increasingly convinced that handling plagiarism punitively does more harm than good to beginning writers (Howard and Robillard 1–7). Rather than treating unintentional plagiarism as a “gotcha” moment to gatekeep academic discourse, it’s often more productive to treat it as a learning opportunity that sets students on the right track for navigating the world of citations. That’s why we’re expanding the conversation about plagiarism, so that students can be more thoughtful and deliberate about their citation practices. Maybe understanding the reasoning behind citations will make it less tempting to throw our hands up and disregard citation standards altogether. Because while these standards might be stringent and difficult to master, their underlying purpose is crucial: to treat others’ ideas and creations with respect by attributing your sources accordingly.
While academic writing might demand more formality in showing whose ideas or creations are whose, it doesn’t prevent writers from building from or collaborating with other authors. In fact, that kind of collaboration is the very reason why it’s so important to cite others’ work: academic conversations are more fair, equitable, and transparent for everyone when all participants use the same system to attribute original content to its source. The Apple example above shows the kinds of chaos that can ensue when there is no shared set of standards for building from others’ work. Viewing citations as a form of protection for original ideas (as Liz Delf does in chapter 30, “Giving Credit Where It’s Due: Why and How to Cite Your Sources,” in this volume) rather than an arbitrary set of rules that you’ll get punished for breaking can make the process of learning the standards feel a bit more intuitive.
Final Tips for Understanding Citation Practices in Your Discipline
As we’ve said before, plagiarism is contextual, which means that the standards for academic honesty and citation practices vary across disciplines and institutions. When you enter into a new writing situation, it is always your responsibility to understand and apply those standards. Here are some final tips and tricks for understanding the standards in new writing situations:
- Familiarize yourself with the academic conduct guidelines at your institution.
- Make sure you know what citation format you’ll be expected to use in each class (and if you’re not sure, ask your instructor directly).
- Bookmark a trustworthy citation reference like Purdue OWL.
- Consider using a research and citation tool like Zotero to keep track of your citations.
- If you’re not sure whether something you’ve written might constitute unintentional plagiarism, visit your campus writing center or ask your instructor.
- If you’re finding yourself panicking over an assignment and tempted to plagiarize, stop and email your instructor. It’s much better to ask for an extension or get extra help on an assignment than to plagiarize and deal with the consequences later.
- Remember that learning citation practices is a continual process. Even your instructors have to brush up on the latest changes in citation styles. Mistakes are OK, so long as you are treating others’ work in good faith and giving credit where credit is due.
- Return to the examples about Apple and “Sherlocking” or the example about pop musicians stealing from other artists. Should Apple be able to copy ideas from content in the App Store? Is it fair to sue an artist for using a familiar musical expression?
- What does “originality” actually mean? Think of some contexts where originality might have varying meanings.
- If you participate in social media, how does that influence your view of attributing content to its original source?
- What are some of the implications when we don’t hold creators to high standards for attributing content in academic spaces and beyond?
- Return to a source you’re using for an upcoming assignment and paraphrase a couple of key ideas according to the guidelines above. Try reading the passage and then paraphrasing it without looking at it. How similar is your language to the original text? How much did you need to alter your phrasing to meet the standards for paraphrasing? What did the process feel like?
Albergotti, Reed. “How Apple Uses Its App Store to Copy the Best Ideas.” Washington Post, 5 Sept. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/09/05/how-apple-uses-its-app-store-copy-best-ideas/.
Bloch, Joel. “Plagiarism across Cultures: Is There a Difference?” Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in a Digital Age, edited by Caroline Eisner and Martha Vicinus, U of Michigan P, 2008, pp. 219–230.
Howard, Rebecca Moore, and Amy E. Robillard. “Introduction: Plagiarisms.” Pluralizing Plagiarism: Identities, Contexts, Pedagogies, edited by Rebecca Moore Howard and Amy E. Robillard, Boynton/Cook, 2008, pp. 1–7.
Mott-Smith, Jennifer. “Plagiarism Deserves to Be Punished.” Bad Ideas about Writing, edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Lowe, West Virginia University Libraries, 2017, pp. 247–252.
“Paraphrasing.” Purdue Online Writing Lab, owl.purdue.edu/owl/research_and_citation/using_research/quoting_paraphrasing_and_summarizing/paraphrasing.html.
“Plagiarism Overview.” Purdue Online Writing Lab, owl.purdue.edu/owl/avoiding_plagiarism/index.html.
Shanfeld, Ethan. “Dua Lipa’s Dual Lawsuits Explained: Musicologists Break Down ‘Levitating’ Similarities.” Variety, 17 Mar. 2022, variety.com/2022/music/news/dua-lipa-levitating-lawsuits-explained-1235204715/.