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Understanding Plagiarism (Student)

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Student Resources > Understanding Plagiarism



Understanding Plagiarism


GW is an academic community that respects the work and ideas of others.  In the academic world, words and ideas are protected by rules and regulations that an institution adopts.  At GW, these rules are presented in the GW Code of Academic Integrity  which defines plagiarism as:


Intentionally representing the words, ideas, or sequence of ideas of another as one's own in any academic exercise; failure to attribute any of the following: quotations, paraphrases, or borrowed information.


Though the definition does not provide a laundry list of modes of communication such as audio, video, images, etc.,  the use of the word “ideas” functions as an umbrella term for today's multi-modal communication platforms.


Plagiarism is not a legal concept--It is a concept defined by academics as inappropriate professional behavior. However, the ideas adopted in academia about plagiarism derive from the constitutional statute of copyright.  Moreover, the concepts underlying the concept of plagiarism and copyright law grew out of Western cultural concepts of intellectual property.  Consequently, students from outside the United States may not understand the American concept of plagiarism if their country does not have a similar system of intellectual property rights.  For more on these types of cultural issues concerning plagiarism, see Cultural Issues and Plagiarism.



Types of Plagiarism:  Intentional and Accidental Plagiarism


Plagiarism can be divided into two types: intentional and accidental.   




Intentional plagiarism is when a person knowingly and willfully presents someone else’s work as his/her own whether by buying a paper at an online paper mill or cutting and pasting content directly into a paper without proper attribution. Intentional plagiarism is often detected when an instructor notices an inconsistency in writing such as a change in style, content, or vocabulary.  Other times an instructor might suspect plagiarism because something about the content seems familiar to the instructor producing a feeling of “I’ve read that before.”


Why Students Intentionally Plagiarize


There are many reasons why students intentionally plagiarize.  


  1. Fear of failure
  2. Poor time management
  3. Disregard for consequences
  4. Disregard for authorship of material accessible online


Intentionally plagiarizing might seem like an inconsequential short-cut at the time, but academic integrity is taken very seriously by professors and the consequences of plagiarism can be grave.  The GW Code of Academic Integrity recommends that the minimal sanction on the first offense of plagiarism is that the student fails the assignment.  However for more egregious examples, sanctions may range from failure of the course to suspension.   For repeat violations, the Code recommends failure of the course, which comes with an automatic notation to the student's transcript and/or suspension.




Accidental Plagiarism


Accidental plagiarism  is when a person does not understand how to properly quote, paraphrase, summarize, or cite the work of others being used in one's paper, resulting in the content being unintentionally attributed to the compiler and not the original author.  Accidental or "unintentional" or "negligent" plagiarism may also occur for other reasons such as carelessness, sloppiness, procrastination or simply by oversight.  In such cases, it is difficult to prove one way or another whether the plagiarism was intentional.  Students assume responsibility when they sign their names to a work product.


Why Students Accidentally Plagiarize


Sometimes students accidentally plagiarize because of inadequate understanding of the conventions of academic attribution.  In other words, a student doesn't know how to properly incorporate the ideas and words of others into a paper or other type of project.


This web site offers resources to help you learn how to research responsibly in the key areas that are trouble spots for accidental plagiarism


  • Taking careful notes during the research process
  • Knowing how to integrate sources into your work through quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing
  • Knowing how to put together a bibliography in the requested citation style


In addition to the above reasons, sometimes a foreign student accidentally plagiarizes because of unfamiliarity with American academic conventions of attribution.  For more discussion on this topic, see the Cultural Issues in Plagiarism section.


In the end, ignorance is not an excuse; all of us at a university are responsible for learning the rules of academic research and writing.






Ranked Choices (in order of relevance)



This handout defines plagiarism, addresses why instructors are concerned about plagiarism, tools for avoiding plagiarism such as proper paraphrasing and citing sources.  The handout ends with the moral: "When in doubt, give a citation."


Intended to be the equivalent of an online textbook, this writing guide from the well respected online Writing Studio at Colorado State University gives a complete overview of how to avoid plagiarizing by going through all the parts of responsible research from gathering information, to incorporating sources, to documenting sources.


  • #3 - Avoiding Plagiarism, The OWL at Purdue [E-HANDOUT]



    From the well-respected Purdue OWL (online writing lab), this e-handout consists of four pages.  The first page addresses the challenges facing scholars into today's global and digital world.   The second page explores what is and is not plagiarism by addressing such such questions as when to give credit and how to identifying common knowledge.  The third page presents an overview of safe research practices from responsible note-taking, paraphrasing and summarizing, to how to properly integrate quotes.  The last page consists of exercises testing one’s understanding of the safe practices for avoiding plagiarism.



Developed by and for the Indiana University School of Education, this tutorial is made up of six primary sections. The first section presents the university's definition of plagiarism.  The second section is an overview of when and how to cite sources in a decision flow-chart format.  The third section concists of links to plagiarism cases.   The fourth section, and probably the most valuable, consists of five examples of how to recognize plagiarism in inadequate paraphrasing.  This section is followed by 10 practice examples of improper paraphrasing.  The sixth section is a 10-question test on recognizing plagiarism.  Designed primarily for Indiana University students, non-Indiana University students can take the test via a designated link.  Though void of all interactivity, the tutorial's examples are good for looking at the different means and methods of inadequate paraphrasing.



There are three parts to this tutorial.  The first part is a multiple-choice exercise that tests general understanding of plagiarism through situational examples.  The second part is a streamed PowerPoint presentation with audio that defines plagiarism and copyright and then discusses how to paraphrase and properly cite words and ideas of others.  The final part is an exercise in paraphrasing and summarizing.




More Choices


This tutorial is divided into four sections.  The first section, appropriately named "First Things First..." defines plagiarism and examines the consequences.  The second section looks at how to avoid plagiarism through taking careful notes and properly quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing. The third secton explores the importance of giving credit through bibliographic and in-text citations and ends with a 9-question yes/no quiz titled "Is it Plagiarism?"   After answering each question, a pop-up appears that explains if the answer is correct or incorrect.  The last section focuses on copyright and also ends with a yes/no quiz that follows the same format of providing pop-up responses.  The quiz is  titled "Is it Copyright Infringment?"



Indiana University Associate Professor of Education Ted Frick developed this interactive tutorial to test a student's knowledge and understanding of plagiarism.  The 10-question tutorial begins with a piece of source material followed by how the material was used in a sample student written work.   After each of the 10 examples, the tutorial asks the question: Is this plagiarism?  The user is presented with several checkable buttons with with various options of how the student sample might be plagiarism.  If the answer is incorrect, the student receives an immediate pop-up stating why the answer is incorrect and is asked to make another choice.  The design of the tutorial is to make the act of taking the tutorial a learning tool.  Of note to the GW community, there are several questions that focus on George Washington.





Topic:  Copyright, Intellectual Property, and Fair Use (alphabetical order)


  • Keith Aoki, James Boyle, Jennifer Jenkins (2006). Bound by Law? (Tales from the Public Domain) Durham. NC: Center for the Study of the Public Domain.  Free digital download per Creative Commons license http://www.law.duke.edu/cspd/comics/
A comic book that explores the contemporary issues facing artists trying to tranverse the issues involved in intellectural property, copyrights, and "fair use."



The site describes itself as offering “general copyright information for educators, students, websurfers and confused citizens.”  Divided into five sections, the site addresses the major domains of copyright.  The Info section gives an overview of copyright issues including fair use and public domain, as well as giving an overall  history of copyright law.  For teaching purposes, the site includes PowerPoint presentations on copyright issues. The Movies section looks at the scope of copyright in the visual domain of movies, television shows, photographs and artwork.  The Music section focuses on the audio domain and deals with all aspects of music composition and delivery.  The Web section examines copyright in the digital domain concerning software and the web.  The final section is an online wizard that aids in copyright registration.



These three tutorials are a series of non-interactive web pages that ask and answer questions about copyright ownership, copyright use, and plagiarism.  If one is interested in discussing the differences and relationship between copyright and plagiarism, these tutorials offer a general overview.



This is the web site of the U.S. Copyright Office. The site has an excellent Copyright Basics  section that defines copyright, describes what it covers, explains who can apply, and even discusses international concerns.




Comments (7)

Anonymous said

at 5:08 pm on Apr 18, 2007

What other resources would be helpful? For example, would it be helpful to have an "Is it Plagiarism" checklist or maybe a "Detecting Plagiarism FAQ"?

Anonymous said

at 12:20 pm on May 6, 2007

Hi, Robbin--I'm finally at it, mostly making minor editorial changes and enjoying what I am seeing and the wiki process. Wondered if the Terpstra examples might give students too many ideas about defending against charges--especially the one on saying it was your rough draft, not yet properly referenced. Think about it; may be OK if the message is stronger that none of these defenses works!

Anonymous said

at 12:24 pm on May 6, 2007

I am not getting into the resources at this point, though I will try to come back to them. You have LOTS! I see that you are marking some as priorities; the only issue might be whether to include one or so in the body of the site if it's so good that you'd really like virtually all to see it--or at least give it big star, color it, or do something to make it really stand out. Otherwise students may feel there are so many that they will do one.

Anonymous said

at 5:32 pm on May 30, 2007

For this main heading, here and in the instructor section, I'd suggest just keeping the opening bit (up to "types of plagiarism") and then making "types of plagiarism" its own section after "Academic Integrity at GW" and before "Cultural Isses" (and maybe retitle it something like "Why (and When) Students Plagiarize")

Anonymous said

at 5:37 pm on May 30, 2007

Actually, it looks like that's how it is below in the instructor section (though we still might want to flip it with the "Academic Integrity at GW" section). I'm also thinking that Carol Sigelman's first comment above is right -- I think we should lose the bestiary of plagiarists here (save it for the instructor section only) and get right to the distinction between intentional and accidental plagiarism.

Anonymous said

at 12:51 pm on May 31, 2007

I went ahead and made a new page in the student section titled "How Students Plagiarize at GW" and removed this material from this page

Anonymous said

at 6:39 pm on May 31, 2007

I would prefer to see a laconic but a comprehensive definition of plagiarism, right at the beginning of the first page.

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