Plagiarism Defined: What it is and How to Avoid it

Many students have faced the difficulty of determining just what exactly constitutes academic plagiarism. This is a very important concept to understand since plagiarism, whether intentional or not, carries heavy penalties. And this doesn’t just mean failing a class. Depending on your university’s code of academic conduct, you could face academic probation or expulsion, even on your first instance of plagiarism. Why such a draconian attitude towards academic dishonesty? Without it, then the whole basis of a university education would be pointless because your professors would never know if you really wrote your papers or not. Some students would even take the risk of plagiarizing if they knew they would only get a slap on the wrist when caught. Academic integrity is the very lifeblood of all learning and scholarly work. When it is compromised, so is a student’s ability to learn and to gain a valuable education.

With all this in mind, let's get down to the barebones of plagiarism!


The basic definition of plagiarism according to the Oxford English Dictionary is "The practice of taking someone else's work or ideas and passing them off as one's own." Therefore, plagiarism in its rudimentary form is the blatant stealing of someone else's ideas and saying that they are actually yours. All of the following instances constitute plagiarism:

  1. Buying or copying a paper verbatim that is available in printed or online form
  2. Taking a fellow student's report, copying it, and pretending that it has your original thoughts and ideas
  3. Handing in a paper that you didn't author
  4. Using another author's ideas or text without proper citations
  5. Poor paraphrasing


The last thing in the list was poor plagiarism. This useful but treacherous writing technique is what leads many "good" students off the cliff into accidental plagiarism. The difference between effective and non-effective paraphrasing is simple: If you're using even 20% of the author's original content and words, you're not doing it right.

A good example of paraphrasing is the following.

Original Text from a Wikipedia Article about Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria

Franz Joseph was troubled by nationalism during his entire reign. He concluded the Ausgleich of 1867, which granted greater autonomy to Hungary, hence transforming the Austrian Empire into the Austro-Hungarian Empire under his Dual Monarchy. His domains were then ruled peacefully for the next 45 years, although Franz Joseph personally suffered the tragedies of the suicide of his son, the Crown Prince Rudolf in 1889, and the assassination of his wife, the Empress Elisabeth in 1898.

Paraphrased Text

Nationalism continually concerned Franz Josef. Among his many preventative measures to national groups within his empire was the Ausgleich of 1867 that gave Hungary greater autonomy. This formally established the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He had a relatively peaceful reign, although he suffered a number of personal tragedies. Included among these were his son Rudolf's suicide in 1889 and his wife Elizabeth's assassination in 1898.

In the paraphrased text, we see that the basic information of the first text remains intact without using the original author's wording or sentence structure.

Golden Rule for Avoiding Plagiarism — When in Doubt, Cite

What this means is that when you're unsure if you should cite or not, just cite. If you're unsure if your paraphrasing is good enough, cite it to the original author. If you follow this little rule, you can save yourself a lot of hair pulling and confusion.

Why You Should Avoid Plagiarism

The obvious answer to why you should avoid plagiarism is that you can face dire consequences from your university, such as academic probation, loss of scholarship, or even expulsion. However, even if you are not caught, plagiarism cheats you out of your education. When you use or pass someone else’s work as your own, you are bypassing necessary processes like learning how to write properly and how to conduct proper academic research. Research, critical thinking, and writing skills don’t stop being useful after you get your degree; you will always use them for most jobs that require brain power over brawn.

An Effective Tool against Plagiarism is Planning

It's always good measure to plan ahead for all of your papers accordingly so that you can reasonably complete them by their deadlines. A way to make sure that your workload is never too much is by carefully going over your syllabi at the beginning of the semester to double check if you have enough hours in the day to get all of your necessary work completed. You're in college for a reason: To get a higher education that will help you for the rest of your life no matter what you decide to do.