What Is Plagiarism? And Why Is It So Bad?

Plagiarism is unethical, and cheating can have major consequences for your academic future. Learn about the types of plagiarism and how to check for them.

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published on April 28, 2022

Edited by Hannah Muniz
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What Is Plagiarism? And Why Is It So Bad?
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A March 2020 survey on cheating and academic dishonesty by the International Center for Academic Integrity found that about 32% of undergraduates had cheated on an exam.

The onset of COVID-19 saw rates of cheating and plagiarism rise sharply. According to one plagiarism detection company, plagiarism jumped 10% in the beginning months of the pandemic.

But what exactly counts as academic plagiarism? And why is it such a big problem?

What Is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is passing off someone else's work as your own.

What does plagiarism mean in an academic context? It can mean turning in a paper that someone else wrote or copying ideas and phrases without crediting the source. Plagiarism can also mean falsifying citations or even copying your own work and passing it off as new.

So why is plagiarism bad? First, it's unethical to take credit for someone else's work. Plagiarism is essentially a form of theft.

Second, plagiarism violates academic honesty policies. Colleges teach students how to follow the best practices when it comes to sharing information and crediting creators. Plagiarism breaks those rules.

Finally, plagiarism devalues college degrees. If employers believe a large number of students cheated to graduate, that hurts everyone.

Is plagiarism illegal, though? While academic plagiarism doesn't violate the law, it does break schools' academic honesty codes. As a result, plagiarism can mean serious consequences for students, including academic probation and even expulsion.

What Are Some Examples of Plagiarism?

There are many types of plagiarism that go beyond paying someone to write a paper or turning in an essay you found online. Understanding the following examples can help students avoid accidental plagiarism.

Complete Plagiarism

Complete plagiarism means taking an entire assignment from an outside source and claiming it as your own. That includes submitting papers you found online or turning in an essay written by someone else.

Ghostwriting and contract cheating (i.e., paying for essays) also qualify as complete plagiarism.

Because complete plagiarism is the most extreme form, students often receive the biggest consequences for this.

It's also often one of the easiest types of plagiarism for professors to identify. Papers passed off as your own work often don't quite fit the assignment. What's more, plagiarism checkers can easily flag copied works.

Direct Plagiarism

Direct plagiarism means taking lines or paragraphs from someone else's work and incorporating them into your assignment.

Unlike complete plagiarism, the assignment usually contains some of your own writing as well. But directly lifting material from outside sources without citing them violates academic plagiarism policies.

Students sometimes accidentally plagiarize directly. If you're dropping quotes or data points into your paper without tracking sources, you might unintentionally incorporate that work into your paper and fail to cite it.

Paraphrasing Without Citing Sources

Is paraphrasing plagiarism? Yes, if you don't cite your sources.

Taking someone else's work and putting it into your own words without any acknowledgment violates schools' plagiarism policies. This includes changing a few words in sentences written by someone else and claiming ideas without attribution.

Fortunately, paraphrasing is one of the easiest forms of plagiarism to avoid if you simply cite the source.

False Citations

Falsifying citations might seem minor compared with copying entire paragraphs from someone else's work, but it still counts as plagiarism. A false citation is when you make up quotes or data points — this goes against plagiarism policies.

Making up citations for accurate information also crosses academic honesty lines.

False citations are one of the most common types of accidental plagiarism. Be sure to carefully track your sources and acknowledge all of them in your work.

Self-Plagiarism

Can you plagiarize yourself? At many schools, the answer is yes. That means you can't turn in the same paper in two classes. It also means you can't reuse material from old assignments in your current work.

Some academic dishonesty policies, however, do not cover self-plagiarism.

Is it plagiarism to use the same essay twice? It depends on the school. Columbia University's self-plagiarism policy, for example, prohibits "using any material portion of previously submitted work … without proper citation and/or the instructor's express permission."

Check with your professor before submitting anything that might qualify as self-plagiarism.

How Do Professors Check for Plagiarism?

Professors use an array of tools to check for plagiarism. At many colleges and universities, online submission platforms include an automatic plagiarism check.

Students often worry their work might trip plagiarism detectors accidentally. Say you quote from common sources like the Declaration of Independence. Will the plagiarism checker flag your assignment? Software designed to detect plagiarism can distinguish between normal sourcing and suspicious material.

Plagiarism detectors are only one tool instructors use to identify plagiarism. In many cases, professors find plagiarism simply by reading the assignment.

Several red flags trigger a more in-depth plagiarism check. For example, if a paper's topic does not directly match the assignment, that's a sign of potential plagiarism. When essays discuss outside sources with no citations from the assigned readings, that's another red flag.

Professors can even catch major shifts in writing style or abrupt changes in the paper's flow.

When professors suspect plagiarism, they can take several steps. They might review a report from plagiarism software or search phrases from the paper. They can also meet with the student to ask questions about the paper.

Keep in mind that professors do not need to find the plagiarized source to trigger consequences. If an instructor strongly suspects plagiarism, they can impose consequences.

What Are the Consequences of Plagiarism?

The consequences of plagiarism depend on your school's honor code and the professor. In many classes, students receive an automatic zero on plagiarized assignments. More extreme forms of plagiarism might mean automatically failing the class.

At many schools, plagiarism means a permanent letter in the student's records. For example, the University of Texas at Dallas maintains academic dishonesty records to track repeat violations.

Professors can also refer instances of plagiarism to the school's academic honesty board. At MIT, instructors can submit a complaint to the Committee on Discipline, which can suspend or expel the student.

The many consequences of plagiarism prove that plagiarism is never worth it. Even students who avoid getting caught hurt themselves because instead of learning the material and doing their own work, they take a shortcut.

Plagiarism ultimately erodes the value of everyone's degree.

Misinformation and fake news can't stand up to tried-and-true academic research methods. Learn how to search for and identify credible sources in college. What is considered a passing grade in college? Is a D a passing grade? Learn more about how to pass your classes and graduate on time. Writing a thesis statement is hard work. Discover the best tips and tricks for crafting an effective thesis statement and supporting it in an academic essay.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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