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I’ve probably never been to a faculty cocktail party that didn’t involve at least a few funny stories of failed student attempts at pulling one over on the professor. And most of those involve some form of cheating—the most clever attempts always in the realm of plagiarism.

I recall an indignant C+ student who was shocked that I might think his paper was not entirely his own. When asked how he came up with the phrase “eschatalogically and millennially focused,” he insisted that he looked it up. But why had he looked it up—what caused those words to occur to him? OK … that wasn’t such a clever attempt.

One of my colleagues shared the story of a student who plagiarized in her course, pilfering from the professor’s own doctoral dissertation! I suppose that one wasn’t very clever either—but he certainly gets points for a gutsy move!

My all-time favorite (so far!) was a young woman who argued with me for 20 minutes, insisting that the work was entirely her own until, having had the plagiarism proven beyond a reasonable doubt, she resorted to a tearful cry of, “But I’m having my period!” Clearly she didn’t know that the standard excuse in these cases is to say, “I didn’t know you couldn’t do that.”

Well … you can’t. Whether you’re ‘borrowing’ someone else’s words OR his or her ideas (which you’ve carefully masked in your own words), the material belongs to someone else, and passing it off as your own will get you in a whole heap of trouble—from a failing grade on the paper to dismissal from a program. If you get caught. And here’s the thing: You probably will.

Getting Caught

There was a time when catching plagiarism required a certain amount of resourcefulness on the part of the professor. Like a literary source critic, the professor would look for:

  • Fluctuations in style
  • Uncharacteristic vocabulary
  • Harsh connections
  • Deviations in perspective
  • The failure of the written work to address the specific topic assigned
  • Inconsistencies in format
  • The unavailability of sources cited

And, of course, there’s always the possibility that a competent expert in the field might actually recognize the material!

Today, it doesn’t take much resourcefulness at all; it takes a computer. In addition to all of these traditional methods of recognizing plagiarism, it’s now standard fare for individual professors—and entire universities—to employ plagiarism-checking software as a matter of routine. And, while these programs do rely (at least in part) on matching words and phrases to existing sources, the more sophisticated programs also check the internal consistency of the vocabulary, style, and format of the document being submitted. Some of the more popular programs currently available are these:

Of course, not all plagiarism is intentional. But here’s the problem: Intention cannot be proven. You can be charged with plagiarism if you’ve:

  • Used someone else’s words without placing them within quotation marks (or within block quotation format, if the quotation is long enough);
  • Paraphrased in your own words someone else’s words or ideas without citing the source;
  • Rearranged a quotation and/or replaced some words so that it is not exact, and then passed it off as your own;
  • Included data from a source that you did not cite;
  • Cited the wrong source for material that you’ve borrowed; or, of course, if you’ve
  • Submitted someone else’s work and called it your own.

Avoiding Plagiarism

After years as a professional editor, following upon nearly two decades as a college professor, I’m astounded by the number of papers I’ve read that have involved plagiarism—even at the doctoral level, where the stakes are extremely high. I like to think that most of it is unintentional. That, in itself, is rather unnerving, however, since it means that you can fall into this trap, too! If your intention is to pass off someone’s work as your own, there’s no advice I can give other than, “Proceed at your own risk, and be prepared for the consequences; any professor who cares to catch you probably will.” If your intention is to avoid plagiarism of the unintentional variety, however, here are a few tips that might help:

  • Beware of paraphrasing. If you do it, make sure that you’re not simply changing a few words. And if you are paraphrasing, it’s obviously someone else’s material—so cite it!
  • Never use someone else’s words without (a) quotation marks (or block quotation format), and (b) a source citation.
  • Do not cut-and-paste from any source without citing that source.
  • Be aware of the citation conventions of your prevailing style sheet (i.e., APA, MLA, Chicago, Turabian, etc.), and take care to follow them precisely.
  • If time and resources allow, have your paper edited by a reputable professional (such as those you'll find on the academic team here at Edits Made Easy).
  • Remember that the only material that may be ‘borrowed’ without citation is material that is considered ‘common knowledge.’ This area presents the greatest risk for unintentional plagiarism, but the solution is simple: “When in doubt, CITE!”
  • Consider employing a plagiarism-checking service on your own. Several of the services listed above are available for individual use, and other—even free—plagiarism checkers are available online.


For Further Information

There are some excellent resources available on the Web for getting information on plagiarism, how to avoid it, and how to detect it. Check out some of these:

  • is a well-organized, clearly-presented resource for understanding what plagiarism is, understanding what lies behind it, and learning to avoid it.
  • is an online guide to Internet plagiarism, with information about plagiarism and its underlying causes, news, detection tips, prevention tips, and more.
  • The OWL at Purdue is a comprehensive, free, online writing resource. Its “plagiarism” pages include information on recognizing plagiarism, tips for avoiding it, and best practices for teachers to deter it.
  • Northwestern University provides a set of tips for avoiding plagiarism, along with some excellent examples of how to use borrowed material appropriately.
  • “Plagiarism Stoppers: A Teachers Guide” offers links to online detection tips, free plagiarism detection sites, prevention training, and some potential paper mills. 

This article is archived from the original Edits Made Easy website and is re-posted here to our new blog under a new date.