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Plagiarism FAQ

See the following answers to frequently asked questions about plagiarism.

What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism is using someone else's ideas, research, thoughts, words, graphics, tables, etc., either directly or indirectly, without properly acknowledging where the information is from. You plagiarize when you pass off someone else's work as your own by using their exact words or intellectual property (ideas). Whether you are trying to cheat or not, if you don't tell your readers where you found your ideas or words in your paper, you're plagiarizing.

How do I know if I am plagiarizing?

As you draft a paper, you should review the sections in which you have quoted directly, summarized or paraphrased information from another source. If you know you used outside sources or if you know you looked some place to get clarification or ideas, but did not attribute where the information came from, you are plagiarizing. Likewise, if you cut and paste information from the World Wide Web and do not acknowledge where the information has come from, you are plagiarizing.

Can I get into trouble for plagiarizing?

Yes. According to the NIU Undergraduate Catalog (2004-05), "Students are guilty of plagiarism, intentional or not, if they copy material from books, magazines, or other sources without identifying and acknowledging those sources or if they paraphrase ideas from such sources without acknowledging them. Students guilty of, or assisting others in, either cheating or plagiarism on an assignment, quiz, or examination may receive a grade of F for the course involved and may be suspended or dismissed from the university" (p. 47). Departments across campus may also have their own departmental rules on how to handle plagiarism. Generally, course instructors will mention how they handle plagiarism in their classes in course syllabi.

Can I still get in trouble for plagiarizing – even if I didn't realize I was doing it?

Yes. Students are held responsible if caught plagiarizing whether it occurred intentionally or unintentionally. Therefore, you must understand how to properly cite outside sources in your discipline. You can get help working with sources from your course instructors or from the University Writing Center.

Why is everyone suddenly making such a big deal about plagiarism?

Because it is a big deal. Plagiarism is an ethical and moral concern. When someone plagiarizes, she or he deceives by passing off someone else's work as his or her own whether she or he meant to do so or not. Sadly, plagiarism occurs at all levels of society. Famous authors have been accused of plagiarism—and have been found guilty.

If I change the words from a source, am I plagiarizing?

Yes, if you do not include a citation for your paraphrase. When you summarize or paraphrase a source, you need to use your own words – but you also need to cite where the information has come from. Citations are not just for use with direct quotes. Any time you take information or ideas from a specific secondary source, you must include a citation. (Additionally, just changing a few words is not really putting information into your own words or setting up a proper summary or paraphrase.) In this situation, you would be plagiarizing because you would still be taking someone else's work and passing it off as your own.

Is it okay to copy and use someone's charts, tables, or figures in my paper? They aren't written words. What if I make some changes?

This is still considered plagiarism because the original author put his or her own intellectual efforts into coming up with the chart, table or figure. The original author did the original research, so she or he deserves the credit.

So, information from the World Wide Web should be treated like an article from a magazine, journal or book?

Absolutely! Handle information you learn from the Web as you would any other source. If you use someone's – anyone's – ideas or words, you must cite – no matter where the information is from.

Did I plagiarize if I turned in a paper written by someone else?

Yes. Whether you buy a paper online or ask a friend to write one for you, turning in work you did not do and trying to pass it off as your own is considered plagiarism.

Can I plagiarize myself?

A tricky question. If you are the one who wrote the paper, of course you can't plagiarize yourself. The problem arises when you want to turn in a paper you did for Course A for an assignment in Course B, which you may only do when you have permission from instructors of both courses. Part of a college education is to broaden your horizons – so you should draft and turn in an original paper for each course. Occasionally, you may have courses that overlap subject areas – but you should look at these opportunities as ways to expand upon the knowledge you've already learned.

As long as I provide a bibliography at the end, I can't be accused of plagiarism, right, since I'm acknowledging I have sources?

Keeping a careful bibliography of your work is only part of avoiding plagiarism. You must also integrate your sources correctly into your paper and cite the sources properly. Besides, if you only provide a bibliography and do not cite your sources in-text, it's impossible to know what information came from where – and that, of course, is plagiarism.

If I summarize (paraphrase) a source, how do I know I'm not plagiarizing?

As you write a summary, something you should do whenever you work with outside sources, be sure to properly cite the source as you recount the major argument and points. A summary is a restatement of a text (either in whole or in part) in your own words – but with attribution to the author. A good way to be sure that you aren't using too many of the author's original words is to put the source away while you write. That way, you'll also be sure you understand the material you are using!

What if I only use a few key words from someone's text? Is that plagiarism?

Another good question. Unfortunately, even if you are not trying to steal someone's words maliciously, you can still be held accountable. So, even if you are just using a "few key words" – make sure you provide proper citation. And ditto if you use an example an author uses in a text. You must provide proper citation.

If I read something in an article that the author himself or herself has found in a source, should I cite the article where I read it or the original article that the author found?

You should cite the article you read. However, you should also consider making the effort to find the original source. Who knows whether the author you read has used the source appropriately?

So I don't just cite when I use direct quotes? I cite any time I use someone else's text – even if it's a summary or paraphrase?

Absolutely. You must attribute sources whether you quote directly, summarize, or paraphrase a source. Anytime you use ideas or words you did not come up with yourself, you must cite them.

But if I cite every single time I use a quote, summarize, or paraphrase, then I'll be citing all the time!

Exactly. When you find this happening, you have probably overused your sources and not given yourself room to express your own ideas and opinions. If you're afraid that your paper will look unoriginal, take that as a hint that perhaps it is, and revise.

But shouldn't I be incorporating sources into my work?

Sometimes, but it really depends on the assignment. If your assignment calls for sources, support, or research, then sources must be incorporated into your work. However, the focus of any of your writing is still your own ideas. You should use your sources to support the points you have to make. Your sources should not take over your paper or say "it" for you. Keep in mind that some assignment prompts require no outside research. If this is the case, you may want to avoid using sources in your paper.

Why isn't it good enough to rely on the scholars who came before me? Why do I need to incorporate my own knowledge and conclusions into my paper?

At this point in your academic career, you should be thinking of yourself as a member of the academic intellectual community in which your ideas are important and interesting. The point of research at the college level is to explore ideas, to learn about a topic that interests you or that you are unfamiliar with, and to contribute new ideas, however small or large, to the rest of your academic peers.

Isn't it flattering to an author if I use his or her work, ideas or research in my paper?

Maybe – but give him or her credit for it. In some cultures, it is acceptable to use another's work without crediting the original author. However, for a North American academic audience, using source material without crediting the original author is considered academic dishonesty and is offensive. Therefore, whenever you get an idea for a paper, research to support your points or words to help you say what you want to say, you must give credit where it is due.

If I do plagiarize, how likely is it that my course instructor would find out?

Very likely. Finding plagiarism these days is easier than ever – as easy as it is for someone to cut and paste off of the web, as a matter of fact. Search engines like Google make it increasingly quick and easy for faculty to find sources from which a student has plagiarized. Also, keep in mind that your course instructors become familiar with your voice (style of writing), therefore, when a shift in tone occurs – and no citation is provided – a red flag goes up that something is amiss. Likewise, a paper or completed assignment that does not correctly or completely address the instructor's guidelines can also signal to the instructor that a student has turned in a plagiarized assignment.