While it might seem that being prepared to quote and paraphrase correctly is enough to avoid plagiarism, to consistently understand how to avoid plagiarism in different situations may require a more nuanced perspective.
The need for citing something as a quotation is usually obvious: are the words the same as those of another source, or are they not? The need to cite something as paraphrasing is not always so obvious. Everyone has ideas all the time, and certainly there is much overlap between the ideas of one person and the ideas of another. It is not impossible for two people to have the same idea, especially when there is a new technology or event which may trigger it, such as the conflicts over who exactly invented what could today be considered a modern light bulb, telephone, airplane, cars, or the Internet. This is more likely to occur in the case of a theory or invention which later proves important or popular. Ideas are not objects though, and do not go through the same kind of patenting process as an invention, and so, while defined theories and research with specific theorists and researchers exist, many times it is not clear who exactly thought of an idea or theory, or who made an important discovery, first. It can be more difficult to decide for how long they deserve credit for an idea, e.g. considering how many things and ideas which are now referred to as “Marxist” only came into existence long after Karl Marx’s death. Fortunately, in academic writing, it is considered not only honorable but also useful context to cite the works of those who have or may have inspired the ideas in your writing, and so liberally paraphrasing many sources is often something encouraged rather than not. Even when a writer does not seek to add new ideas to a long description of cited literature, it can still be considered original and useful work to have assembled them together for comparison and a better understanding of how that literature developed.
Still, this does not actually answer the question of “when should I cite an idea in my writing as one which I paraphrased?” The phrase usually used to describe when an idea does not need to be paraphrased is “common knowledge”. You may notice that phrase is in quotation marks, and that is because while people may refer to this knowledge as “common”, not only is it distinctly varied from one culture to another, but indeed people from the same culture may not actually consider the same knowledge “common”. For example, students from China have previously complained that knowledge familiar to them and arguably “common” was not considered “common” by their American instructors. Sometimes, the problem is that the ideas appear stolen, as they closely resemble ideas that are associated with existing authors. Other times, the students in question are not considered reliable sources of information on their own. For example, when writing about the details of how language is used differently in rural and urban China, what might seem like an obvious conclusion to a Chinese writer might seem like it needs more evidence to a non-Chinese reader (or vice-versa). Conceivably, this evidence could come from some kind of mutually accepted expert about the subject, such as a respected book which is available internationally. In these situations, as is always the case, effective academic writing is writing which the readers find compelling, and so it is best for the writers to anticipate and prepare for the opinions of the readers since writers are not usually writing to persuade themselves.
There are some general guidelines that can help you to better understand “common knowledge”. Names and dates, for example, at least for contexts for which reliable records exist, e.g. most non-ancient history, are generally considered common knowledge. When writing in any field, the most reliable measure is to follow the example of the sources you are reading. If two sources both have the same ideas, and neither cite each other, nor another, third source, then what they are writing is likely considered common knowledge in that field. In reality, most of what is written has been written before in some way, and only some of anything written is cited, so arguably most of what you read about in a field is in some way common knowledge. However, if an idea seems unique, or you are not sure if what you are reading is “common” enough to just write it in your own words, there is no harm in paraphrasing and citing that source, and it is considered honorable to give credit to the scholars who came before you.
Plagiarism versus Copyright
One of the most confusing things about plagiarism is the difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement. Both are violations of the university’s policies about academic integrity, but both, especially copyright infringement, are also illegal. Copyright infringement refers to using work without the permission of an author when the author legally reserves the right to copy their work only for themselves and those whom they have given permission to copy it, i.e. a copyrighted work (a trademark is similar, but different, and not as relevant to academic writing). This can be music, videos, any form of visual art, words, charts, graphs, etc. Generally, permission to copy a copyrighted work is granted when the copyright owner is paid for that permission. If a work is copied without permission, a lawsuit may force the copier to pay a penalty or even be sent to prison. Copyright laws can be confusing as there are differences from one country’s laws to those of another, and a copyright may not be recognized equally in every country. It should also be noted that a copyright can be bought, sold, or inherited, and so even though the creator of a work may have died, the copyright may still be effective. Sometimes the copyrights on a work expire, as is the case in many countries when a book has already been published for more than a century. Other times, even an old copyright can be renewed. When a work is not copyrighted, it is considered in the public domain. A copyrighted book will generally have the copyright together with the publication information near the title page. If you are not sure if a work is copyrighted, it is better to assume that it is, since most recent works are.
Fair use refers to using a copyrighted work in a way that is considered minor enough to be legally acceptable. Examples include short quotations from other sources in a book, or when one work is a parody or critique of another and uses some elements from the work being parodied or critiqued. How much is too much is usually decided in court, but, as was mentioned before, this is not so important to academic writing, because you should not have long quotations in your writing anyway simply because quotations are not considered your own writing, and even if cited correctly and not plagiarism, will usually be considered excessive when readers are expecting to read your work. That said, to give some examples of how plagiarism and copyright infringement sometimes overlap, consider the following:
- If I were to scan a copyrighted book into a computer for my own use, that may be neither copyright infringement nor plagiarism, since it is for my own use and I am not suggesting it is my own writing.
- If I were to scan and distribute a copyrighted book to others, either digitally or on printed pages, especially for money, that is copyright infringement, since I had only paid for it for my own use but then distributed it, but it would not be plagiarism, since I did not claim it as my own writing.
- Fair use is typically calculated according to what portion of a work has been copied by someone else, but for example, if I were to copy and distribute a page from a copyrighted book, that may or may not be considered copyright infringement, but it would not be considered plagiarism unless I also claimed to have written that page myself. Educational contexts sometimes allow freer sharing of a copyrighted work. However, even if it is fair use, copyrighted sources must still be cited.
- If I copy a paragraph from a copyrighted book into an essay and did not cite it as another source, it is both copyright infringement and plagiarism, since using a copyrighted source still requires a citation, and I would have also claimed someone else’s writing as my own writing.
- If I copy a paragraph from a copyrighted book into an essay and cite it as another source, that is not copyright infringement, nor plagiarism, as it is limited enough copying to be fair use, and I did not claim it to be my own writing. However, it may still not be appropriate, since only rarely is a whole paragraph from another source necessary to quote in an academic paper. There are some academic fields in which this is more common, such as history or textual analysis, but in most it is frowned upon.
Perhaps the most dangerous and common error students make confusing plagiarism and copyright infringement is not when they are guilty of copyright infringement, but rather when they are not guilty of copyright infringement. In this era of mass distribution of media, text, and information via the Internet, it is increasingly popular for creators to label their work “copyright free”, meaning that the creators do not require credit for their work in the form of a copyright, and you can access, copy, and alter it freely. Sometimes, there are still restrictions, such as not allowing copiers to sell and make money off of the copyright-free work of a creator, or not allowing it to be altered. Copyright law is not the focus of this paper, however. The important thing is that some students think that because a book is in the public domain, that is, without a copyright, that they can therefore copy it into their papers without citing it as an outside source. This would be considered plagiarism. A common example is using information from open-source reference websites like Wikipedia–it is public domain, but that only means that anyone can read, copy or alter the information on the website. It does not mean that students can copy and paste information from Wikipedia without citing it. Quotations from Wikipedia and other websites are still quotations, and must still be placed in quotation marks and cited as such. If one is paraphrasing common knowledge from a website like Wikipedia, no citation is necessary, but only if it is common knowledge written in your own words, i.e. paraphrased. If you were quoting Wikipedia, your instructor would probably wonder why, as Wikipedia is not a reliable source and is mostly common knowledge besides. But this is not to say that Wikipedia and other websites have no academic value. Some websites with protected domains, such as .edu or .gov, offer generally reliable information which could be used in an academic paper. Even with ones which are not protected domains, and therefore could be bought and written by anyone, websites such as Wikipedia can provide useful clues about what is considered “common knowledge”, provide examples of specialized language used to describe technical information in English, or provide examples of more reliable sources via their citations. Few sources of information are truly useless, but none of them can simply be copied and pasted into an academic paper without marking them as a quotation and providing a citation.
Plagiarism and Plagiarism-Adjacent
With all this, it might seem that what is and is not plagiarism is clear enough to be assessed, but nothing has been said about the mechanical differences between plagiarism and non-plagiarism, and what will be referred to in this chapter as “plagiarism-adjacent”. That is, what could be interpreted as plagiarism in some reckoning. Assuming that a source is cited correctly, and quotations are required to be the same wording as the original source, essentially the question is, “How different does paraphrasing need to be from the original wording in order to not be copying?”
There is not an easy answer to this question. Generally, if you want to keep a unique phrase or term, especially if you want to include the term and the definition, it may be better to use a quotation. Some guides have set out a certain number of words one is allowed to have similar to the original source, usually between five and ten, but this too is not very meaningful, as even two or three of the exact same words in the exact same order can seem like copying the wording, whereas other times, even longer phrases can seem like they are not copying. Consider the following example:
Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in 1770 in Bonn, Germany.
This sentence is ten words long, and generously exceeds any conceivable general rule for the maximum number of words before a paraphrase could be considered copying and therefore plagiarism. However, three of those words are a name, and phrases like “was baptized”, “in 1770”, and “in Bonn, Germany” (an ancient and prominent city in western Germany) are all extremely common in English. In particular, when describing an event, it is not usual to provide the city and year in which it occurred, and in Beethoven’s time, baptismal records were sometimes more reliable than birth records–in short, this sentence could easily be written by two unrelated authors purely by coincidence simply because of common language and conventional phrasing. It could perhaps be called plagiarism-adjacent, but not many instructors are likely to call it plagiarism. This is an extreme example, but the point is that there cannot be a simple rule to decide what absolutely is and is not plagiarism. Part of it is whether or not the author likely intended to copy a sentence, that is, is the potential plagiarism deliberate? Part of it is what kind of phrase is potentially plagiarized, that is, are they long, common phrases with names of several words or are conspicuously unique phrases using specialized language? Of course, it is better to avoid this plagiarism-adjacent zone, but it would be difficult to avoid altogether, and so it is important to know that it exists.
Self-Plagiarism in the Classroom and in Publications
Sometimes students assume that because they wrote a paper that they can do whatever they want with the paper, and to some extent that is true. Generally the author of a work is automatically the copyright holder, for example. However, if that writing is being submitted for any purpose to a university, publisher, etc., there may be expectations about what the writing can and cannot be that authors must follow.
Of special importance is that the policy of most universities is that students cannot resubmit the same paper for multiple classes. Sometimes, especially if a student is writing a paper that exceeds the expectations of two different classes, special permission can be granted by the instructor of both classes to submit the same paper to both, but that permission is not generally granted, as the expectation is that each class represents a certain amount of work for the students. Likewise, publishers generally do not want to publish something which has already been published elsewhere, although, since submitting a paper for class is not actually a form of publication, it is not unusual for students to submit a paper they wrote for a class to a publisher. It should be noted that because a class requires a student to submit new and original work students cannot submit any previous publications for a class.
Closing Advice on How to Not Plagiarize
There are two things that can be strongly recommended as general practices to avoid plagiarism, in the experience of the authors as writers:
- Keep a list of notes and quotations that you like as you read different sources for your research. This will serve as a reference later as you go back to read your notes while you are writing so that you do not need to re-read sources while writing. Importantly, include all necessary information for a citation in your notes, so that you do not lose the ability to create accurate citations. Also importantly, be sure to indicate quotation marks with the quotations in your notes so that you do not accidentally paste a quotation from a source into your paper thinking that it is a paraphrase from your own notes. Your paraphrasing from your notes can be used as paraphrasing for your papers, so extensive notes can be useful.
- It can seem frustrating to have to paraphrase extensive amounts of text. However, your purpose as a writer will not be the same as the purpose of any other writer. Rather than thinking of paraphrasing as unnecessary alterations, think of how your purpose is unique, and how the text can be shortened and rephrased to something which is compelling and concise for your purpose more than for theirs.