Plagiarism (In My Own Words)

Written by Shari Maser, advisor for the home based education program of Clonlara School.  While this article was written for the homeschooling parent, we believe it is also true of families who are seeking educational choices for their children is campus based programs as well.

pla·gia·rize: verb \plā-jə-rīz also -jē-ə-\To steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own; use (another’s production) without crediting the source; commit literary theft; present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.

“Plagiarize – Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary.” Dictionary and Thesaurus – Merriam-Webster Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2012. <;.

Webster’s definition is clear; plagiarism is unacceptable. In fact, consequences can be severe, especially in the academic and business communities; colleges and employers will not tolerate it.

But what exactly constitutes plagiarism, and how can students avoid it? I asked my fellow Advisors, and here is what they said:

JEFF: I guess plagiarism, in a sort of legalistic sense, is taking someone’s copyright and claiming it as your own. Certainly, there is a wide swath of grey area here. If you change one word in a sentence, does that make it your own? Most of us would say no. What if you change all of them, using a handy thesaurus, to synonyms? Most of us still would say no. That doesn’t comprise originality. But if you read it, and processed it through your brain, adding some kind of personal reflection, experience, response, etc., then it does come to carry the mark of “originality.” It still might be the most trite thought in the world, but it can be illustrated to be one’s own trite thought…

JACKIE: I think plagiarism is when a person claims another person’s words or ideas as their own. Plagiarism can be avoided by giving credit when you borrow another person’s words or ideas. I was told by a college professor, if you use more than 5 or more words in a row, then you need to cite and use quotes. It’s OK to use someone else’s idea or research to prove your point or add to your point or as building blocks for your ideas, but you must not steal their ideas.

BEV: My understanding of plagiarism is taking someone’s else’s thoughts, ideas or words and not acknowledging that those thoughts, ideas or words were not your own but the other person’s. Why is it wrong? It’s not original to you and therefore if there is no acknowledgement of that fact then it is theft.

While each Advisor may have read the dictionary definition above, none of them copied it. They each answered the question differently, even though they all communicated roughly the same idea.

But what if Jackie had wanted to use the dictionary definition in her answer? Which of the following approaches do you think she could have used without crossing any legal or ethical boundaries?

1. I think plagiarism means stealing and passing off (the ideas or words of another person) as one’s own, without crediting the source.
2. According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, plagiarism means: “To steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own; use (another’s production) without crediting the source; commit literary theft; present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.”
3. Plagiarism is the act of claiming someone else’s written work as your own unique creative expression, instead of giving credit to the original author.
4. Plagiarism means committing the crime of literary theft, or using another person’s words or ideas without crediting that person as the source.

In Examples 1 and 4, she did not cite the dictionary as her source, yet she basically copied the dictionary’s wording with just a few small tweaks along the way. (This is plagiarism, which is unacceptable.)

In Example 2, she named the dictionary and then used quotation marks to indicate which words came from the definition they had printed. (This is quoting from a cited source, which is acceptable.)

In Example 3, she paraphrased the dictionary definition; this means she said basically the same thing but used noticeably different wording and sentence construction. Since the information she conveyed is considered common knowledge, there was no need for her to credit the source directly. (This is paraphrasing, which is acceptable.)

For formal guidance about how to use source material appropriately, check out the following online resources and books: – Purdue University Online Writing Workshop; includes a guide to avoiding plagiarism — Indiana University guide to quoting, paraphrasing, etc. — practice exercises re: avoiding plagiarism — Indiana University guide to avoiding plagiarism — Indiana University test to prove you understand plagiarism and how to avoid it — Cornell University’s student tutorial re: avoiding plagiarism — Cornell University quiz to test your knowledge re: avoiding plagiarism — Pearson’s quiz re: avoiding plagiarism – Q& A site about plagiarism – Students can submit papers to this online plagiarism detection program — list of links to sites about plagiarism

What Every Student Should Know About Avoiding Plagiarism by Linda Stern – a comprehensive guide designed for high school students

The Pirates of Plagiarism by Lisa Downey and Kathleen Fox – picture book that targets ages 7 and up

Shari Maser is an advisor for the home based education program at Clonlara School.  She wrote this article for The Learning Edge newsletter and kindly let us re-use it.


7 responses to “Plagiarism (In My Own Words)

    • We aren’t aware of any of our students using either WriteCheck or CopyScape, but both seem very worthwhile to check out – not only for students but also staff. Clonlara School never endorses any specific product unless we’ve used it and it’s a ‘tried and true’ tool.

  1. The actual author of the article did a little research once Lindsay asked her question. Shari’s response is: “I checked out the Copyscape website you mentioned. It seems to be oriented toward protecting your work against being plagiarized, as opposed to ensuring that your own work is original. So I’m not sure it is useful for students.”

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