Plagiarism: what it is and how to avoid it

Definition of plagiarism

Four pointers

Using summary and paraphrase

(Adapted by Mark Chekola, Philosophy Department, Minnesota State University Moorhead, with permission, from an article by SuEllen Shaw in Writer's Corner, Winter 1995-96)


Taken from the Latin words plagiaries, meaning plunderer, and plagium, meaning kidnapping, plagiarism means "to steal and use (the ideas or writings of another) as one's own," according to The American Heritage Dictionary, second edition. Going further, Stephen Glazier in Random House's Word Menu defines plagiarism as "appropriation and publication of another's writing without consent" (409). He also defines it as "literary theft; stealing another's work without giving credit, passing it off as one's own (543). To summarize, plagiarism means taking someone else's words, ideas, or specialized information and passing them off as one's own; it is intellectual theft. 

Avoiding Plagiarism: four pointers

In addition to definitions, applied examples are needed--how to and how not to use material.

Years ago, Mary Pryor, now retired from Moorhead State's English Department, gave  four pointers for students on avoiding plagiarism. Here are revised versions of her four pointers::

Pointer #1. Whenever you use more than three words in a row that occurred exactly in the same order in your source material, put the words into quotation marks and use a parenthetical note or footnote or endnote to give credit to your source.

Example #1 of correct use of ideas:

Source (a book on Robert Frost):
By the last stanza, however, we realize that the poet is talking about something more than the choice of paths in a wood, for such a choice would be relatively unimportant.

Your essay:
The poem "The Road Not Taken" is structured by a symbol, for the roads referred to are more important than just "the choice of paths in a wood" (38). 

Pointer #2. If the words are your own, but the idea comes from your source, you do not need quotation marks, but you do need to give credit to your source parenthetically or in an endnote or footnote, and you need to supply a lead-in which tells whose idea it is.

Example of correct use:

Source: Same as example #1.

Your essay:
Symbolism is important in the poem "The Road Not Taken" because, as Laurence Perrine indicated, by the end of the poem the reader realizes that Frost is concerned with something more important than deciding which path to choose in the wood where he was walking (Perrine 38).

Pointer #3. You must not just put a parenthetical note at the end of a paragraph to indicate that all the ideas in that paragraph come from a source. The reader has no way of knowing whether just the last sentence or the last several words or the whole paragraph is someone else's idea. Your lead shows where your summary/paraphrase starts.

Pointer #4. Any information you use in your paper that is not general knowledge requires that you give credit to a source. 

Example: It is generally known that the composer Handel wrote a famous work called the Messiah, and that its most famous part is the Hallelujah chorus. You can mention that fact in a paper without citing a source. It is NOT generally known that several melodies found in Handel's Messiah were taken intact from Italian love duets by a composer other than Handel. If you want to mention this fact, you should cite the source where you learned it.

When in doubt, cite your source.

Summary and Paraphrase

Using another author's words and ideas improperly is often the result of careless or inept summarizing and paraphrasing. Diana Hacker in A Writer's Reference (216-217) writes:

"When you summarize or paraphrase, [naming] the source is not enough; you must restate the source's meaning using only your own words. Your are guilty of plagiarism . . . if you half-copy the author's well-chosen words without using quotation marks or by plugging your own synonyms into the author's sentence structure."

The following paraphrases are plagiarized--even though the source is cited--because their language is too close to that of the original source.

Original version

If the existence of a signing ape was unsettling for linguists, it was also startling news for animal behaviorists. -Davis, Eloquent Animals, p. 26.

Example of unacceptable borrowing of words

If the presence of a sign-language-using chimp was disturbing for scientists studying language, it was also surprising to scientists studying animal behavior (Davis 26).

Unacceptable borrowing of structure
If the presence of a sign-language using chimp was disturbing for scientists studying language, it was also surprising to scientists studying animal behavior (Davis 26).

          Acceptable paraphrases of the same example:

When they learned of an ape's ability to use sign language, both linguists and animal behaviorists were taken by surprise (Davis 26).

According to Flora Davis, linguists and animal behaviorists were 
unprepared for the news that a chimp could communicate with
its trainers through sign language (26).


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Last updated March 22, 2007