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MHS Library | Plagiarism

1. What is plagiarism in the digital age?

How do you know if you're plagiarising? Confusion about what is or isn't plagiarism is an issue for everyone when we have so much available to us online - text, images, sound, film. Expressing an original idea might be impossible since we are saturated by people's ideas and information. 

How do we know if we are even plagiarising unintentionally and what do we do about it?

3. Fear of plagiarising

As intentional cheating and methods to catch it become more sophisticated, even a conscientious teenager who would never knowingly plagiarize can relate to the fears of Perri Klass. She is a regular Times contributor, who writes about how she was convinced she had inadvertently plagiarized the first line of a book review she had just turned in:

I worry that as I browse the words on the web, as I click on links and read polemics and paragraphs on websites I can’t even name, metaphors and metonymies may catch on my brain like burdock burrs, with the tiny hooks that inspired Velcro. (And yes, I did just check whether anyone else has invoked plagiarism and the burdock plant in the same sentence; it’s a poor thing but, as far as I can tell, mine own.)

Back in 2010, Trip Gabriel wrote, in “Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age,” that “many students simply do not grasp that using words they did not write is a serious misdeed.”

Digital technology makes copying and pasting easy, of course. But that is the least of it. The Internet may also be redefining how students — who came of age with music file-sharing, Wikipedia and Web-linking — understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image.

How true is this for you? Do you think that it's becoming a bigger problem in the last few years? What can we do about it?

5. How can we learn about plagiarism at school?

Dr. Robeson Taj Frazier, assistant professor of communications at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, talks about how complex the issue of plagiarism is for young people growing up in the digital age:

“Google Books puts entire texts right on their screen. They’ve come of age in a time where ‘research’ means submitting keywords online – leading to fundamentally different relationships between them and their texts. Gone is the feeling of ‘this isn’t mine.’ The copy and paste function is begging for use. And if there’s a preview option, they can skip around within the document to immediately start pulling quotes.”

But these students have also grown up in a sampling culture where everything is ripe for appropriation.

“This is a hip-hop generation. The artists they admire sample heavily and present music, culture, and media as new – when it isn’t. When students need a photo for a digital story or flyer, it’s theirs in seconds. Questions of authorship and propriety aren’t a thought. This is the environment in which we’re demanding rigorous scholarship from them. We obviously need to change the conversation. Ethical writing is a great place to start because it undergirds the entire undergraduate experience,” Mr. Frazier said.

6. Questions about plagiarism

Some questions for discussion:

  • What is your definition of plagiarism?
  • What does “paraphrase” mean, and why can it be difficult to do well?
  • What is proper attribution, and when does that get complicated? For instance, what about reposting someone else’s words or images on social media without giving credit?
  • How much can one — whether a student, a professional writer, artist or musician, or anyone else — “borrow” from someone else before it becomes stealing?
  • What is the academic honesty policy at this school? Are there gray areas? What questions does it raise for you?

Add your thoughts here:

Finally, have students practice paraphrasing and citing sources in their writing, perhaps using some of these exercises.

Attribution - The Learning Network (Teaching and Learning With The New York Times)

The information in this guide was contained in a post shared online by The Learning Network in The New York Times and written by Lionel Anderson and Katherine Schulten. It is a lesson plan which is part of the Academic Skills section of The New York Times. The content has been copied and, in places, modified, from this resource.

Subject guide created by

Guide created by Tania Sheko. Contact me


2. Examples of plagiarism in the news

Here, for instance, are just a handful of cases that have made headlines in the last few years:

4. What is plagiarism?

First, what is plagiarism?

Definition from

Many people think of plagiarism as copying another’s work or borrowing someone else’s original ideas. But terms like “copying” and “borrowing” can disguise the seriousness of the offense:

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, to “plagiarize” means:

  • to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own
  • to use (another’s production) without crediting the source
  • to commit literary theft
  • to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source

In other words, plagiarism is an act of fraud. It involves both stealing someone else’s work and lying about it afterward.

But can words and ideas really be stolen?

According to U.S. law, the answer is yes. The expression of original ideas is considered intellectual property and is protected by copyright laws, just like original inventions. Almost all forms of expression fall under copyright protection as long as they are recorded in some way (such as a book or a computer file).

All of the following are considered plagiarism:

  • turning in someone else’s work as your own
  • copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit
  • failing to put a quotation in quotation marks
  • giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation
  • changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit
  • copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not (see our section on “fair use” rules)

Most cases of plagiarism can be avoided, however, by citing sources. Simply acknowledging that certain material has been borrowed and providing your audience with the information necessary to find that source is usually enough to prevent plagiarism. See our section on citation for more information on how to cite sources properly.

Note: We took the definition above verbatim from the Is that plagiarism? Visit the page and scroll down to the “reprint and usage rights.” What if that statement wasn’t there, yet we still quoted all the information above, and cited our source?

7. Practise paraphrasing

Practise paraphrasing and citing sources in their writing, perhaps using some of these exercises.

8. The art of paraphrasing

Dr. Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, said, “People plagiarize because they’re not confident expressing things on their own.”

Like many teachers, Ms. Gasman can spot a plagiarized submission without’s originality checker. “When their work doesn’t resemble their vocabulary and the writing doesn’t match their intellectual contributions in class, I know right away,” she said.

Ms. Gasman said that students are more likely to plagiarize when relying on one source. They must be taught how to intelligently synthesize work from multiple sources — but that requires that students understand what big picture arguments they are making before situating others’ ideas amid their own.

You might use the extensive resources and exercises from the Purdue Online Writing Lab; have students take this quiz from the University of Southern Mississippi; or scroll down to find our own paraphrasing exercises.

Students should read David Carr’s lively 2012 piece, “Journalists Dancing on the Edge of Truth,” about the process of reporting and writing a column — and how the line between thief and journalist is all in the execution.

If you want to know how to cite digital sources correctly, the Modern Language Association (MLA) provides clear guidelines on how to cite electronic pieces from blogs to tweets to email, as this page from the Purdue Online Writing Lab explains. Have a look at tools like Zotero, a free plug in that helps organize and manage citations as you gather information on the web.

Finally, let students know that you will evaluate their work in part in terms of how well they use, and cite, an array of relevant sources to support their ideas. (For example, here is the rubric we use to judge student work for our annual Editorial Contest.)