Understand and Avoid Plagiarism

what it is, why it matters, ways to make your writing "original" AND ethical, your own AND in dialogue with other texts and ideas


to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own; use (a created production) without crediting the source; to commit literary theft: present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source. —Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary

Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos. —Mary Shelley, Introduction to Frankenstein

Introduction: Welcome to "Avoiding Plagiarism"

We are presenting this page under the assumption that most student writers prefer honesty and fairness—in their teachers' grading of their work, in their classmates, and in themselves (as people they should respect)—over cheating. Therefore "AVOIDING" rather than "Punishments for." (For the University's policy on Academic Integrity and the adjudication process for infringements, which include plagiarism, go to (http://www.pitt.edu/~provost/ai1.hdtml.)

Of course, it's easier—well, faster, anyway—to take shortcuts by cutting and pasting some stuff you found on a web site or making liberal use of Sparks Notes or "borrowing" a friend's paper, which conveniently addresses the same topic. After all, your professors have all assigned way too much work, you also have a job, a social life, and family obligations, and there's that flu bug you just can't shake. But the stressful management of college work is what you have to learn to cope with, not cop out on. Organizing work time and habits and dealing well with challenges are among the most important things you'll learn in college. Even when you've long forgotten the name of the protagonist of Henry IV or the first sentence of Moby-Dick, you'll be putting to good use the work skills you developed here, whatever your post-graduate career.

So, read on for reasons why you should think twice about plagiarizing. And afterward, read about ways to avoid plagiarism and to improve your work habits, methods of documenting your work, and links to useful additional resources online and in print.

Is the issue only "legal"?

You've all heard of musicians being sued for "borrowing" another songwriter's material or famous published authors guilty of stealing from one another. Sometimes plagiarism profits the plagiarizer (if he or she doesn't get caught) and deprives the "original" creator of the "idea or product" of earnings (to quote the Webster's definition at the top of this page). In such cases, we are talking about copyright infringement, a legal issue. But students plagiarize not to make money by ripping off someone else's work but to pass a course, complete an assignment on deadline, survive another term, take a shortcut, or gain more free time for important things like attending a home game. However legitimate the reason might seem at the time, you're still stealing—from the original writer, from yourself, from your classmates, and from the university.

  • The writer deserves recognition, acknowledgement. No writer is happy about someone coming along and taking credit for the work of a few minutes of copying what may have taken years and a great deal of labor to accomplish. While published writers will obviously feel strongly about this, many student writers—you yourself, we hope—also take enough pride in their writing to object to someone else freeloading on their work.
  • Yourself: As a university student, you are learning how to enter the conversation or collaboration that is intellectual work; your part in this "conversation" requires that you demonstrate honesty and creativity in the work you do. And, though you may not think so now, that conversation or intellectual work continues beyond college and throughout your life as an educated person.
  • Your classmates: Fair evaluation assumes a level playing field. Students rewarded for work not entirely their own gain an unfair advantage over their classmates; their cheating seems validated while other students' hard work gets punished.
  • The University: The teacher and the institute he or she represents enter into a contract with the student, who agrees to perform a certain quantity and quality of work in exchange for the teacher's expertise, helpful feedback on written work, a grade, and credit towards a degree. Plagiarism (and other forms of academic dishonesty) commits a breach of the terms of the contract, in which the student essentially profits from the university through deception. Such theft, if "successful," also devalues everyone's grades and degrees. And it undermines teachers' trust in their students as well as teachers' professional convictions.
  • So, avoiding plagiarism—being honest with your professors, fair in competing with your classmates, accurate in your reading and interaction with other writers and their work—is an integral part of education. The question is not so much one of being law-abiding but of being or becoming a qualified and quality person.

Professor's responses to instances of plagiarism will depend on the professor and on the particular case. The University itself prefers that all cases be reported and handled according to its protocol. In general, however, no one condones it; the English Department generally enforces the policies of the University and punishes plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty (cheating in exams, fabricating or falsifying research, etc.) according to those policies: with a failed or zero grade on the paper or for the entire course, or with further censure if the University sees fit.

But first, how do you know something's plagiarism?

Plagiarism occurs when you do one or more of the following in a paper:

  1. You quote directly from a source without using quotation marks and adequately acknowledging the source. "Sources" include books, magazines, newspapers, journal articles, Web pages, lectures, notes, letters, movies, musical lyrics. In some cases, even a single word, if it's distinctive, constitutes plagiarism if not properly attributed with quotation marks and some sort of citation.
  2. You paraphrase a source without acknowledging it.
  3. You paraphrase too closely to the original (substituting synonyms for some of the original words), even if you do acknowledge the source.
  4. You use someone else's idea, argument, interpretation, facts or supporting evidence without indicating your dependence on it (with a footnote or textual citation), even if you modify or elaborate the idea or argument.
  5. You fabricate a source or quotation to give the appearance of having done required research.
  6. You turn in someone else's work, in whatever form, as your own.

First and foremost, make it clear that something is a direct quote:

  • Shorter quotes, which you integrate into your sentence or paragraph, have quotation marks ("___"), and are accurately copied, including necessary punctuation. Any omissions of unnecessary material (words, phrases, sentences, or punctuation) must be indicated with ellipses (…); any insertion of material that is not in the original source (punctuation, words, or alterations of the original words, e.g. to conform to a verb tense) for the purpose of grammatical clarity must use square brackets ([ ]).

  • Longer quotes (at least four lines in length) do not require quotation marks so long as they are indented to set them off from your own writing.

  • Cite the source in the format required by the citation style specified by your course instructor (the list of works cited and of suggested reading below are in the MLA style, frequently used in writing about literature, but other instructors or disciplines may require Chicago Style, or APA, or CBE, etc.).

When do you QUOTE instead of paraphrasing?

  • You want to be concise; a paraphrase will only be longer and clumsier than the original.

  • You want to be accurate; a paraphrase will distort the meaning of the original.

  • You find the words or style (unique language) of the original memorable, vivid, or powerful and feel that a paraphrase would not convey their meaning. Perhaps you wish to focus your analysis on particular words or ways of expressing things unique to that writer or text and you need to show your reader directly.

  • You wish to add authority to your writing by quoting the words of an expert on the subject. (Weidenborner and Caruso, 127-129)--see "Works Cited or Consulted" list below for full citations.

How to Pharaphrase correctly:

  • Paraphrase when you do not need to quote.

  • A paraphrase should re-present the original in a shorter and possibly clearer form (in the context of your paper).

  • Do not distort the meaning of the original.

  • Put the paraphrase in your own words and do not simply copy the original with a few omissions, substituted words, or "subtle" rearrangements of words.

  • Add a proper citation, according to the style you're using.

Examples of Improper and Proper Paraphrase:

Original passage:

The half-built new towns, in which the typical business was a shed with a two-story trompe l'oeil façade tacked onto its front end, were architectural fictions, more appearance than reality; and their creators, the railroad magnates, speculatively doodling a society into existence, were like novelists (Raban, Bad Land 23).

Poor paraphrase (too close to original; no acknowledgement of source):

The semi-constructed new towns, in which many shops were only sheds with higher fake fronts added on, were architecturally fictional, more for outward show than realism. The railroad bosses who designed them on paper, imagining a society into being, were similar to novelists.

Good paraphrase:

To improve the appearance of the merely functional buildings of the frontier towns, the bosses of the railroad companies often gave them fake fronts (Raban, Bad Land 23).

Paraphrase and commentary, including brief quotation (of distinctive language):

In describing the earliest railroad towns in Montana, Jonathan Raban makes the analogy between their "trompe l'oeil façades" and fiction, and similarly between the builders and novelists, suggesting that perhaps fantasy and illusion often got the better of pragmatism (Bad Land 23).

Notice that the first example of paraphrasing commits two crimes: First, it almost copies the original passage, substituting synonyms and slightly varied wording. There's no reason not to have just quoted the passage in this case. Second, it omits the documentation, the citing of author and page number in parentheses, therefore implying that the writing is the student's own, not a quote and not a paraphrase. Paraphrasing too closely to the original is flirting with plagiarism, but doing it without any acknowledgement of the source is definitely committing plagiarism.

Also note in the first "good" example that it conforms to the basic requirements that a paraphrase be shorter than the original without distorting its meaning and that, even though it does not quote directly (which would require quotation marks), it still has a citation of author and page number after it.

The second "good" example does quote a phrase from the original text in a sentence that otherwise paraphrases and, a step further, does some interpretive (or analytical) work on Raban's writing. You should keep in mind that when you lift even just a single word or a short phrase from a text, IF it's unique or unusual or clearly expresses a distinct idea or opinion of the author, it should be put in quotation marks and cited. If it's a common word or phrase, or a "fact," something that doesn't appear to be a particular invention or assertion of the author, then it's fair game.

When in doubt about whether something requires quoting, it's probably better to quote it. This goes for ANY source, whether a printed text, the World Wide Web, or a remark made in the classroom by a professor or fellow student. If one of your classmates says that Moby Dick (the whale) is a "juggernaut of the sea" or a "big white Hummer amongst Cooper Minis" and you want to talk about the notion (and words) in your paper, you should use quotation marks as I have just done and add a note acknowledging the source of the phrase or idea.

When do I cite sources and how?

To sum up the section above, quote (use quotation marks and citation) when you want or need to use the exact language of an original text or speech, no matter what format that original is in (including any and all Internet sites). A quote can range in size from a single word to a long section of text. Paraphrase (do not use quotation marks but do use citation) when you wish to represent the ideas or content of a section of text but don't need to quote it directly; the paraphrase should always be shorter than the passage in the text. Summarize when you wish to condense a large section of text into a short description of the essential information, usually in order to provide context or a transition from one part of your paper to the next important point.

When in doubt, cite your source.

  1. This rule of thumb includes any URL (Uniform Resource Locator, the full internet address beginning with http://).
  2. Ask your professor or tutor which documentation style you should use.
  3. If left up to you or if you can't get the information in time, choose the style that is easiest and most readily available (you may own a writing handbook, for instance A Writer's Reference by Diana Hacker [see Bibliography below], that provides guidelines to a few of the most commonly used styles; or you can look online for a style sheet to one of them).
  4. Whichever style you use, the main rule to remember is that the primary purpose of the citation is to enable your reader to look at the same text you did--not necessarily to check up on you or your accuracy in quoting but also to find out more about the source and the ideas there. The page number helps your reader to find your exact source quickly.

Other Links:

Documentation styles vary according to discipline and sometimes publisher (different professional journals may have different requirements, for example). For more information on styles, you can consult writing handbooks, research guides (e.g., Weidenborner and Caruso), librarians, your instructors, the Writing Center, or some of these Web sites:


The Purdue University's Online Writing Lab's MLA

The University of Wisconsin - The Writing Center


American Psychology Association (APA) Style

The Purdue University's Online Writing Lab's APA Style

Chicago (or Turabian) Style

The Chicago Manual of Style Online

The University of Wisconsin - Chicago/Turabian Documentation Style

** WHEN TAKING NOTES (from textbooks or other print sources), be particularly careful to copy accurately and to make sure you mark down where you're copying and where you're abbreviating, paraphrasing, omitting, or inserting your own comments. Make sure also to copy down page numbers and citation information as you work. With Internet materials, you can cut and paste into your own document, but then remember to put some quotation marks around the pasted text so that you'll remember later when you go back to your work what was quoted. AND, cut and paste the URL for the web page you quoted as well as any other pertinent info found on the site--especially author name, if any, date, and title of the article or page.

Students and Instructors who want additional help with plagiarism and academic integrity, check out these sites:

Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education as well as providing services for the development of teaching and technological approaches, CIDDE oversees the use of turnitin.com, a database and software for detecting plagiarized papers. Professors may elect to use this system in their courses. Note: Nearly as many sites for plagiarism prevention exist as sites for plagiarism (i.e. "paper mills"; we're not going to list examples here!).

Other useful anti-plagiarism pages:


Some concepts that seem similar to plagiarism, but are not plagiarism....

Fernando Botero,
"Mona Lisa" (1977),
—not plagiarism, but parody

Parody is often confused with plagiarism, even in high-profile copyright-infringement cases. It is one of the many gray areas that make plagiarism such an ambiguous issue for students as well as teachers and artists. In literature, parody "imitates a specific literary work or the style of an author for comic effect, usually to ridicule or criticize that work, author, or style" (Murfin & Ray 328). Another book of literary terminology adds that as well as poking fun or criticizing, parody "may even imply a flattering tribute to the original writer" (Harmon 367), while really making fun of something else altogether. For example, in cartoons political satirists might parody the characters from The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland to mock the current government (I've seen both Clinton and Bush administrations depicted as Oz figures). Other arts--music, painting, television and movies, even architecture--use parody, usually in combination with more "original" (personal and inventive) styles and subject matter. The point about parody, what makes it work as parody, is that everyone instantly recognizes it. Because no one would mistake it for the artist's (the parodist's) own invention, it has not been "stolen," but is rather being "quoted" and commented on. In this case the quotation marks are implicit, the citation unnecessary because of the obviousness of the parody. Botero's painting, shown at the top of this page, obviously parodies Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, perhaps the best known artistic image in the Western world--so well known that we take it for granted, we take it too seriously. The parody makes fun of our over-investment in the original Mona Lisa, not of the painting or Leonardo himself. In music, think of sampling in hip-hop; in TV of The Simpsons' parodic imitations of . . . just about everything.

Burlesque is a form of comedy that parodies a literary form by using ridiculous exaggeration or distortion. A classic example is Cervantes' Don Quixote, which burlesques medieval romance; a more modern example with the same subject might be Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Travesty is "a type of low burlesque that treats a dignified subject in an especially, often grotesquely, undignified way" (Murfin & Ray 489). In other words, it trashes people, works, or things we may value. Think South Park or Married...With Children.

Collage, in literature, describes "works incorporating quotations, allusions, foreign expressions, and nonverbal elements" (Harmon 102). Examples include T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land and parts of James Joyce's Ulysses.

Homage (or hommage, French) or Tribute by one writer to another, including quotation or imitation designed to be recognized by the reader.

Sample, in music, is "a usually digitized audio segment taken from an original recording and inserted, often repetitively, in a new recording" (http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=sample). The jury's still out on this one.

Collaboration or collaborative writing are common practices engaged in both in college writing and in professional life. Movie screenplays are written by committee and scientific or technological papers by teams of researchers. In the former, perhaps not all due credit is always given, but writing done for publication or professional advancement must be more legit. Likewise, working with peers (in a classroom or writing center, or in the dorm room) is often part of assigned or acceptable student writing, but proper credit and acknowledgement must go with the work submitted.

Works Cited or Consulted 

(The following citations were either used in developing this page or are recommended reading for students wanting to think further about the complicated issues of plagiarism. This list also demonstrates Modern Language Association documentation style; see for further help: Joseph Gibaldi, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 6th Ed. New York: MLA, 2003; MLA internet site: http://www.mla.org/.)

Books (including essay collections):

Angelil-Carter, Shelley. Stolen Language? Plagiarism in Writing. Harlow, UK: Pearson Education, 2000.

Buranen, Lise and Alice M. Roy, eds. Perspectives on Plagiarism and Intellectual Property in a Postmodern World.

Albany: SU of New York P, 1999.

Hacker, Diana. A Writer's Reference. Fifth Edition. Boston & New York: St. Martin's/Bedford, 2002.

Harmon, William. A Handbook to Literature. Ninth Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.

Howard, Rebecca Moore. Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators. Stamford, CT: Ablex, 1999.

Lathrop, Ann and Kathleen Foss. Student Cheating and Plagiarism in the Internet Era: A Wake-Up Call. Englewood,CO: Libraries Unlimited, 2000.

Murfin, Ross and Supryia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Second Edition. Boston & New York, 2003.

Raban, Jonathan. Bad Land: An American Romance. New York: Vintage, 1996.

Randall, Marilyn. Pragmatic Plagiarism: Authorship, Profit, and Power. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2001.

Weidenborner, Stephen and Domenick Caruso. Writing Research Papers: A Guide to the Process. Sixth Edition. Boston & New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001.

Articles in books and periodicals:

Altschuler, Glenn C. "Battling the Cheats: Surveys show dishonesty is on the rise, helped by the Internet, but professors fight back." The New York Times. 7 January, 2001. Education Life section, 15.

Buranen, Lise. "'But I Wasn't Cheating': Plagiarism and Cross-Cultural Mythology." 63-74 in Buranen and Roy, eds.

Howard, Rebecca Moore. "The New Abolitionism Comes to Plagiarism." 87-95 in Buranen and Roy, eds.

Kopytoff, Verne G. "Brilliant or Plagiarized? Colleges Use Sites to Expose Cheaters." The New York Times. 20 Jan., 2000.

Scott, Janny. "My Words? Yours? Whose Are They? Publishers Wonder if Workaday Prose Can Really Be Plagiarized."

The New York Times. 14 April, 1997. Business Section, D1, D8.

Internet Articles:

Clayton, Mark. "Term Papers at the Click of a Mouse." The Christian Science Monitor. 27 October, 1997.


Hafner, Katie. "Lessons in Internet Plagiarism." New York Times On the Web, Learning Network. 28 June, 2001.


While deliberate plagiarism is recognized as patently dishonest, non-deliberate plagiarism often occurs because students are not aware of what it is and how one can use sources. In an essay available online through PittCat, Jeffrey Klausman shows how he teaches the correct use of sources, particularly with Internet "click and paste" ease: Klausman, Jeffrey. “Teaching About Plagiarism in the Age of the Internet.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 27.2 (Dec. 1999): 209-212.

Standler, Ronald B. "Plagiarism in Colleges in USA." 2000. http://www.rbs2.com/plag.pdf


This page written by Mark Kemp.
Questions or suggestions, please contact mkemp@pitt.edu