Students concerned about plagiarism should first find out what their school's expectations are. Many universities have comprehensive plagiarism policies, and even require a definition of academic plagiarism to be included on every course's syllabus.
If you are still unsure about what constitutes plagiarism, talk to your professor, or to whomever will be grading your assignments (or both). Instructors may have their own different expectations about citation style or appropriate sources – to some degree, the only opinion that matters is that of the person marking your essay.
Some Common Types of Academic Plagiarism
There are a number of instances that every instructor would classify as plagiarism:
- Failure to attribute sources properly. This most common type of accidental plagiarism occurs when students do not note where a direct quotation, indirect quotation, or idea came from. While impractical in an essay exam, attribution is essential for all written assignments. Non-attribution can also result from improper citation.
- Failure to list sources. This happens when a research paper has few, if any, sources in the bibliography, which are not cited in the essay itself. A paper with this defect straddles the line between plagiarism and simple incompetence, and it is up to the instructor's discretion how to mark it. Neither results in a good grade.
- Handing in someone else's work. Sadly, some students believe that, having paid for someone else's essay, it is now "theirs." While most realize that this constitutes cheating, not knowing that is not an acceptable defense.
- Handing in a previous assignment. Some students also believe that they can hand in a paper written for another class. Unless a paper on the same topic is substantially different, this constitutes self-plagiarism. Again, ignorance is no defence.
How to Lessen the Chances of Unintentional Plagiarism
After learning what constitutes plagiarism, there are a number of steps students can take to avoid being suspected of plagiarizing an essay:
- Research broadly, start early. Read up on your topic from a variety of sources. Being informed will allow you to judge what is an original idea in context. If your instructor requires a minimum number of sources, exceed it. Also, begin as soon as possible; most plagiarism, intentional or not, is the result of last-minute pressure to complete a paper.
- Cite everything you learned. Many students are confused when told not to cite common knowledge (e.g., that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet). But even among the well-educated, not all facts are commonly known. Cite the source of anything that you yourself learned in the course of writing your essay.
- Use the right citation style, and use it consistently. Different disciplines use different systems for citing sources; employ the right one throughout your paper. MLA, APA, and Chicago style are most common.
- Write papers on a variety of subjects. Even if all your essays are in the same department or program, write about different things. You'll avoid the temptation to recycle your own material or mistakenly switch citations between papers.
Many of the ways that unintentional plagiarism can be avoided also give you a higher grade, and help you learn more. In other words, if you are informed and put in the work, it is nearly impossible to unintentionally plagiarize an essay.