Understanding Plagiarism

Plagiarism is taking the ideas or words of another and passing them off as one's own. In an academic community, intentional plagiarism is an especially serious violation of trust. For how can teachers help students learn the skills they need if students are not truthful about the work they do?

It is not surprising, then, that plagiarism is one of the offenses listed in the Baylor Honor Code. In fact, as the excerpt at right emphatically states, the students who created the code in 1916 and who have pledged to uphold it in the decades that followed believe that students who plagiarize should not be part of the Baylor community.

The school's faculty understand, however, that learning to avoid plagiarism is an intellectual journey as well as a moral matter. This guide is our attempt to help students understand what plagiarism is and teach them the skills to avoid it.

Intentional & Unintentional Plagiarism

The recent sixth edition of the MLA Handbook includes a chapter on plagiarism and makes the point that plagiarism can be unintentional: "as when an elementary school pupil, assigned to do a report on a certain topic, goes home and copies down, word for word, everything on the subject in an encyclopedia" (69-70).

Even beyond elementary school, students may fail to understand how to quote accurately and paraphrase effectively, and as indicated by the right-hand list below, it is possible for students to plagiarism without realizing they are doing so.

Whether a teacher judges an instance of plagiarism as intentional or not depends on three factors: the age of the student, the nature of the offense, and the scope of the offense.

Age of the student

A freshman or sophomore with little research experience might argue successfully that poor paraphrasing (for example) was unintentional--the student simply did not know better. A junior or senior who has completed several research assignments should know better, and for such students, carelessness or hastiness does not excuse plagiarism.

Nature of the offense

It is one thing to include a word used by an author without understanding what it means or to paraphrase inadequately so that a paragraph sounds too much like the original. It is another to insert whole chunks of an author's work into an essay without quotation marks.

Scope of the offense

One passage that is poorly paraphrased in an otherwise meticulous essay, or one citation that is missing, or even one short quotation that is not enclosed in quotation marks--these are a far cry from an essay that is packed with such errors.

To generalize, a teacher would judge as unintentional the plagiarism of a younger student committing any of the errors listed below on the right a handful of times in an essay A teacher would judge as intentional the plagiarism of an older student committing such errors throughout an essay. The point, of course, is not to embarrass or punish any student; it is to prepare all students for the rigorous standards of American colleges, which assume that students understand plagiarism and which treat all cases as intentional.

Intentional Plagiarism occurs when writers or researchers know full well they are passing off someone else's words or ideas as their own. Purchasing pre-written research papers through the mail or via the Internet is probably the most blatant form of intentional plagiarism (and the easiest to detect).

Some specific examples of intentional plagiarism:
(1) Passing off as one's own pre-written papers from the Internet or other sources.

(2) Copying an essay or article from the Internet, on-line source, or electronic database without quoting or giving credit.

(3) Cutting and pasting from more than one source to create a paper without quoting or giving credit.

(4) Allowing someone else to write the paper or do the work.

(5) Borrowing words or ideas from other students or sources (such as Cliff's Notes) without giving credit.

(6) Failing to put quotation marks around the words of others.

(7) Fabricating a quotation or a source.

(8) Pretending that an instant translation is one's own work. (Not only is such a practice dishonest--but the instant translations give miserable results. Click here for some examples.)

Unintentional Plagiarism occurs when writers and researchers use the words or ideas of others but fail to quote or give credit, perhaps because they don't know how. When in doubt, students must check with a teacher or librarian.

Some specific examples of plagiarism that may be unintentional:
(1) Paraphrasing poorly: changing a few words without changing the sentence structure of the original, or changing the sentence structure but not the words.

(2) Paraphrasing poorly: using words from the original that aren't part of one's vocabulary.

(3) Quoting poorly: putting quotation marks around part of a quotation but not around all of it, or putting quotation marks around a passage that is partly paraphrased and partly quoted.

(4) Citing poorly: omitting an occasional citation or citing inaccurately.

Consequences of Plagiarism


The major consequence of plagiarism is that people who engage in it hurt themselves. Good research and writing involve a host of skills: for a start, evaluating sources, taking careful notes, selecting appropriate quotations, paraphrasing, and giving credit to others for their ideas and words. Students who plagiarize may never learn these skills, and life in college and beyond can be difficult without them.

Of course people who engage in plagiarism also hurt others: for one, their classmates, and for another, the school or university they attend. At the very least, turning in plagiarized work is unfair to students who do their own work. It also jeopardizes the integrity of the grading system. And whether detected or not, plagiarism violates the implicit contract of the schoolroom: that students and teachers are working together to help students learn knowledge and skills that will enable them to fulfill their potential.

Plagiarism also undermines the whole notion of academic integrity on which the academic world is grounded. All knowledge depends on previous knowledge; as Sir Isaac Newton said, "If I have seen further [than certain other men] it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants" (Bartleby.com). We want people to be able to evaluate what we say, and we want to acknowledge our debt to those whose thinking has helped us. We do so by carefully crediting others for their ideas and their words.


As we have already seen, plagiarism can be unintentional or intentional.

As the quotation at right demonstrates, intentional plagiarism is a clear-cut matter at Baylor. Teachers turn in any students they believe have willfully plagiarized. The Honor Council hears each case, and students found guilty suffer these consequences:

1) They receive a 0 on the work in question.

2) They are suspended, most often for two or three days. The length depends largely on the student's behavior before the Honor Council; truthfulness and contrition are appropriate when the evidence is compelling. Ordinarily the student misses a day of school for the first day of suspension (and receives a 0 on all work that day). Remaining days are "reverse suspension"; students serve these during the next vacation.

3) Students who are convicted of plagiarism also receive specific final warning and will suffer expulsion if they are convicted of a further honor offense.

The penalties for unintentional plagiarism are not quite as clear-cut. A teacher may assign plagiarized work an academic penalty (most often a 0) but not send the author of that work to the Honor Council if the teacher is convinced--given the age of the student, the nature of the offense, and the scope of the offense--that the student did not intend to plagiarize. For example, if a younger student, in taking notes, failed to quote a six-word phrase and that phrase ended up in his or her essay without quotation marks but with the source cited, a teacher might conclude that the student had been careless rather than intentionally dishonest.


Colleges and universities take plagiarism every bit as seriously as Baylor does, and they assume that students know, or should know, how to avoid it. Students may be suspended or expelled from college for plagiarizing. As the passage at left notes, they may also have their diplomas revoked after they have graduated.

Accusations of plagiarism in one's professional life can have even more devastating consequences. People in academic and scientific communities have lost their jobs and their reputations for copying the work of others without giving credit to it. Some popular historians have recently been embroiled in plagiarism controversies and as a result have lost credibility in many academic communities.

Avoiding Plagiarism

The good news about understanding plagiarism is that the concept at heart is simple: we give credit to others for their ideas, and we give credit to others for their words.


The author of Ecclesiastes, a book of the Old Testament, wrote, "there is nothing new under the sun" (1:9). Teachers love for students to be original, but they know that whatever spark from a student's mind creates an original thought, the ideas of others provided the fuel for that thought. Therefore, as the handout from the UNC Writing Center notes at left, there is no shame in citing the ideas of others--in fact, just the opposite.

For example, students who read criticism on a novel want their teachers to know that they have understood the criticism and are responding to it. Students who read about historical theories want their teachers to know that they are thinking about those theories. Students who read about scientific discoveries want their teachers to know that they are aware of those discoveries--and so on.


Just as we give credit for ideas, so too we give credit for words by enclosing them in quotation marks and indicating the source. However simple, it is never acceptable to cut and paste a passage (whether a few words or a paragraph or a page) and pretend it is our own work.

As Emerson's quotation at right indicates, a quotation can provide wonderful support. But rather than pretend we have written the quotation, we enclose it in quotation marks and acknowledge the source. In this way we are giving credit to the author and making others aware of his or her words.


If it is clear that we need to give others credit for their ideas and their words, it is not always clear what we don't have to give credit for. People generally agree that there is no need to provide credit for facts that are common knowledge, but within the academic community there is some disagreement about what common knowledge is.

Most everyone agrees that common knowledge includes facts that virtually everyone knows: for example, that George Washington was the first President of the United States. Beyond those most elementary of facts, the picture is not so clear. Some teachers consider common knowledge what students knew before they entered a course; others consider common knowledge what everyone in a given class knows at a given time. And some teachers consider common knowledge any fact that a person could easily find in a variety of general reference works.

Baylor teachers agree with the final position: if we can easily find a fact in a variety of sources, then we can consider that fact common knowledge. A good rule of thumb is that we can consider as part of the body of common knowledge any fact that we find in three unrelated, reliable reference sources (not three places on the Internet copied from the same source).

Beyond this basic agreement, different disciplines have developed different conventions about common knowledge. To see the conventions that Baylor teachers expect students to follow, click on the links below.

Taking Notes & Paraphrasing

The purpose of research is to take information from several sources, play with it in our own minds, and put it together in our own words, including others' quotations (where helpful) and acknowledging others' ideas. More often than not, plagiarism occurs when students try to take information from sources and stick it into their writing without first running it through their own brains. By short-circuiting the process of research, they invite disaster.


Taking notes on sources is a critical first step in avoiding plagiarism. Students who try to skip this step and write while they are looking directly at their sources will almost certainly plagiarize.

Instead, once we find a helpful source, we take notes on it. As the UNC Writing Center Handout on Plagiarism states, "Taking careful notes is simply the best way to avoid plagiarism." The handout continues, "try thinking about your notes as a transitional 'space' between what you've read and what you're preparing to write." Furthermore, as we can see from the quotation highlighted at the left, the UNC handout suggests that we take notes without looking at the original source.

When we read a passage in preparation for taking notes on it, we need to give ourselves time to consider what information may be helpful to us. Sometimes a source may provide more detail than we need, and we simply summarize the point of the passage (in our own words, in fragmentary form). Other times a whole passage may be important, and we need to take detailed notes on it. To do so, we read it carefully, put it aside, and then jot down relevant information from it--writing fragments rather than phrases or sentences to protect ourselves from unintentional plagiarism.

Quotations, of course, are another matter. These we should copy down exactly and put in quotation marks.


One of the great benefits of doing research on a topic is that we have the chance to learn words we didn't previously know. But part of good research is making sure that we know the meanings of the words we use. So when we come across a word whose meaning we don't know, we should include it in our notes--but we should look it up before we use it, and in the essay or project we produce as the result of our research, we should define or explain the word for the benefit of classmates who may not know it.

For example, let's say we are researching the life of Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales, and discover that Chaucer's father was a vintner. In order to better understand Chaucer's family, we need to know that a vintner is a wine merchant, and if we use the word vintner, we should explain its meaning.


We take careful notes so that once we assimilate and process all of our information, we will write in our own words and our own sentence structures rather than in the words and sentences of our sources. That is, we will paraphrase successfully.

If it is important to look away from the original source when we take notes, it is even more important not to look at that source when we are paraphrasing. We should have our notes in front of us, not our sources--as the Online Writing Lab at Purdue notes in the quotation highlighted at the right.


To quote again from the UNC Writing Center Handout on Plagiarism, "Paraphrasing does not mean changing a word or two in someone else's sentence, changing the sentence structure while maintaining the original words, or changing a few words to synonyms. If you are tempted to rearrange a sentence in any of these ways, you are writing too close to the original. That's plagiarism, not paraphrasing." Below are some examples of this sort of unsuccessful paraphrasing.

This original sentence is taken from page 921 of Baylor's U.S. History text book, The American Pageant by Thomas Bailey, et al:

"The burly Khrushchev, seeking new propaganda laurels, was eager to meet with Eisenhower and pave the way for a 'summit conference' with Western leaders."

Changing a word or two (plagiarism)

The stocky Khrushchev, looking for new propaganda recognition opportunities, was eager to meet with President Eisenhower and to pave the way for a joint conference with leaders from the West.

Rearranging sentence structure (plagiarism)

Seeking new propaganda laurels, Khrushchev was eager to meet with Eisenhower. He wanted to pave the way for a summit conference with leaders from the West.

Quoting fewer than all of the words (plagiarism)

"Khrushchev was eager to meet with Eisenhower and pave the way for a 'summit conference' with Western leaders."


Follow the process outlined above, taking careful notes and writing from your notes.

Check your work against the original text to be sure that you have not accidentally used the same phrases or words and that the information is accurate.

Also, remember that paraphrasing does not eliminate the need for giving credit for the ideas of others. Even if you paraphrase, you must attribute the material to the author and cite the source in the text at the end of the sentence.


So that we can let readers know where we found our information, we need to be on the alert from the beginning of our research to record the necessary facts about each source. Baylor recommends (and most teachers require) that students follow the procedures established by the Modern Language Association for student research papers. We can learn those procedures by visiting the MLA website, consulting an MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (available on reserve in Hedges Library), or going to the excellent MLA summary compiled by librarian Carl Owens.

If your teacher asks you to use a different style, as the Baylor Science Department often does, then you must be careful to note what the guidelines are for citing resources using this style. At any time, if you do not understand how and what to cite or how to cite properly, ask your teacher or a librarian.

When we use a book, we need to be certain to copy down all of the information necessary to cite that book, including the page numbers of any quotations or other material that is not common knowledge. One way to make certain that we have important citation information is to photocopy the title page of the book (carefully noting the copyright date usually found on the reverse side of the front page). It is also a good idea to keep our notes and the publication information together. If we found the book in the Hedges Library, we can retrieve all necessary citation information from Athena, the library's on-line catalog.

When we use on-line resources, we also need to note where we found the information. If we are using an on-line database, we must note the name in our citation. We need the website title and address for any Internet sites we use. We must also provide the date that we visited a site. If we print out web pages, the date and web address usually appear. However, it is more effective--and less time-consuming--to copy web addresses and paste them into a document for retrieval later.

The bottom line is that we must insure that anyone wanting to check our information can return to our sources and see how we have made use of what we have read.

Additional Resources

Resources for students

Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 6th ed. NY: MLA, 2003.

A Guide to Plagiarism at Baylor School
Baylor librarian Carl Owens has produced a concise handout about plagiarism.

OWL (Online Writing Lab) at Purdue University: Avoiding Plagiarism: Printable Handouts
Another excellent resource, this handout includes a helpful chart entitled "Making Sure You Are Safe."

UNC Writing Center Handout | Plagiarism
This excellent resource provides a clear guide to plagiarism-free writing. "The moral of this handout: when in doubt, give a citation."

Resources for teachers

Anti-Plagiarism Strategies by Robert Harris
Harris, who is something of an authority on plagiarism, details "Strategies of Awareness," "Strategies of Prevention," and "Strategies of Detection." At the bottom of the site is a link to information about The Plagiarism Handbook by Harris.

Plagiarism and Technology by Carl Owens
One of Baylor's librarians lists a host of online resources: sites that translate foreign languages, solve math problems, and sell essays; sites that provide plagiarism detection services; sites of search engines that teachers can use to investigate student essays; and sites about MLA style.

Plagiarism and the Web by Bruce Leland
Leland provides a list of suggestions and links to other sources.

TechNotes Teaching Tip: Thinking and Talking about Plagiarism
This site includes links to many other sites discussing plagiarism and also details one teacher's approach.

Resources consulted for these guidelines (in addition to those listed above)

"Computer Program Targets 122 Virginia Students for Plagiarism." Chattanooga Times Free Press 10 May 2001: A5.

Quotations. Bartleby.com. Sept. and Oct. 2002 <http://www.bartleby.com/quotations/>.


Baylor's Honor Code, a copy of which hangs in Hedges Library, is the cornerstone of our values as a school and a community. When they enter the school, students sign a pledge to comply with the Honor Code, which states: "The Honor System is an understanding among Baylor student that they do not want among them one who will lie, cheat, or falsify information. I understand this principle, and I recognize that I shall be expected to live in accordance with it."