How to Understand, Recognize and Avoid Internet Plagiarism

Plagiarism is a longstanding problem. For example, the Center for Academic Integrity found that an astonishing 80 percent of all college students have cheated at least once during their college years. With the advent of the Internet, plagiarism is even easier and more convenient to commit. Online plagiarism occurs when a person copies online content and changes enough minor words to make the piece seem new. The Internet, unlike previous resources, such as hard copies of books, makes a wide variety of research sources instantaneously available. For example, students can paste together a final paper by simply copying and pasting together an essay that is made up of chunks of several papers. Although online plagiarism consists of texts available online, it can be difficult for educators to detect Internet plagiarism due to paraphrasing tactics and the sheer vastness of the Internet. However, search engines and free software can be helpful in tracking down suspected passages.

The word “plagiarism” can take on several different meanings, including “to commit literary theft”; “to steal and pass off”; and “to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.” In other words, plagiarism is a clear act of theft, and according to U.S. laws, some forms of plagiarism can be considered the stealing of intellectual property. However, there are also notable distinctions between plagiarism and copyright infringement, as a student can plagiarize a poem that is no longer under copyright protection (such as Shakespeare’s poems).

Intentional and Unintentional Plagiarism
There are several different types of plagiarism from paraphrasing work to out-rightly and generously stealing work without adequate citations. Some writers also forget to cite their sources, while others even end up plagiarizing themselves. In the past several decades, notable journalists have been accused of “forgetful citing” and self-plagiarism. For example, Stephen Glass, a former up-and-coming journalist who wrote for notable D.C. journals such as the New Republic, consistently practiced “forgetful citing.” More recently, a young journalist by the name of Jonah Lehrer of the New Yorker resigned after he was caught recycling old articles from past columns in other journals.

Although clear distinctions can be difficult to make, there are some important differences between intentional and accidental plagiarism. Intentional plagiarism takes place when writers knowingly take full passages from external sources. These writers are fully aware that they are taking someone else’s work in order to pass off as their own. Examples of intentional online plagiarism may include purchasing pre-written research papers via the Internet or copying and pasting entire passages from any number of websites.

Where intentional plagiarists never give credit to other writers, unintentional plagiarism occurs when writers summarize the work of others without quoting or referencing these sources. Some writers also plagiarize when they simply do not know how to properly cite texts and their authors. “Accidental” plagiarists also tend to do a poor job of paraphrasing other writers’ work, making the plagiarism all the easier to spot.

In order to avoid unintentional plagiarism, writers should remember to cite all external information sources that are used in their papers. This includes all works that contain opinions, arguments, facts and statistics that are not written by the writer. Using quotation marks to reference excerpts is also a good way to distinguish the writer’s work from that of the cited source. Parenthetical or in-text cites are also important to include when using external sources, such as databases, articles and books. Lastly, one of the most common forms of unintentional plagiarism arises when writers paraphrase someone and then forget to cite the work they are paraphrasing. Always include citations when you are paraphrasing work, even if you are not using direct excerpts from the text.

Although instances of accidental and intentional plagiarism can be difficult to separate, accurately citing texts and pointing out all external sources protects the writer from common plagiarism accusations. Remember, prudence is always necessary when arranging citations and paraphrased writing.

Additional Resources
If you are interested in reading more about different types of plagiarism and/or content copyright guidelines, the following is a list of helpful online resources that provides information on a range of topics associated with plagiarism.

  • Cut-and-Paste Plagiarism: Cut-and-Paste Plagiarism provides tools that successfully prevent and detect online plagiarism.
  • The New Plagiarism: This website illuminates the distinctions between “electronic” or Internet plagiarism and traditional plagiarism.
  • Plagiarism and Anti-Plagiarism: Plagiarism and Anti-Plagiarism provides a guide for teachers and university faculty members and discusses the most common issues and responses to student plagiarism.
  • Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement: This is a helpful article discussing examples of plagiarism that happen in a range of commercial and educational settings.
  • The Plagiarism Resource Center: The Plagiarism Resource Center provides free software that allows teachers to compare papers in order to determine if they have been plagiarized.