Franklin Style Manual Online

1.4.1 Defining and assessing plagiarism

Plagiarism is often presumed to refer only to copying with the intent to cheat. According to The Oxford American Dictionary of Current English (2011), however, to plagiarize is to “take and use [the thoughts, writings, inventions, etc., of another person] as one’s own.” Notice that this definition of plagiarism does not take into consideration whether the violation was intentional or not. This means that plagiarism can be committed inadvertently. Having been accused of plagiarism, some professional writers have, for instance, claimed that their note‐taking methods led to accidental confusion between their own observations on what sources say and direct quotations from sources recorded in their notes. In the end, no matter whether readers believe these writers’ excuses, the plagiarized passages themselves do not meet academic standards and may be considered academic dishonesty (see more below), depending on the circumstances and nature of the plagiarism.

From a practical perspective, then, the intentions of the writer play no role in assessing whether or not a piece of writing has been plagiarized. Rather, a determination that a passage has been plagiarized is based on three qualities of the writing itself: (a) its similarity in wording, structure, and ideas to another piece of writing; (b) the degree to which those similarities are explicitly attributed to another piece of writing; and (c) the likelihood that unacknowledged similarities are merely coincidental. If similarity is high and acknowledgement and likelihood of similarity are low, readers have good reason to believe the passage is plagiarized. This does not mean, however, that low similarity indicates no plagiarism. A single phrase, when not attributed to an earlier author who used that phrase in unique application to the particular subject of writing, can be considered plagiarized—unless it is placed within quotation marks and clearly attributed to its source.

In most cases, instructors who first identify plagiarism in a paper and then file formal charges point to whole paragraphs or extended series of small, unacknowledged similarities that are unlikely to be coincidental. It does not matter whether the writer confused notes with recorded quotations or consciously copied‐and‐pasted text directly from a source into a draft document—or even whether the writer happened to recall a significant amount of similar verbiage from a source read days or weeks earlier. If a paper shows a significant unacknowledged similarity that is unlikely to be coincidental, an instructor can reasonably file a formal plagiarism charge (which the student would then be allowed to appeal). Bearing this in mind, students should exercise due diligence to learn how to record information carefully and acknowledge sources properly. Students should also take the time to correct inappropriate borrowings identified in drafts by instructors, peer reviewers, or electronic tools. Not doing so is a failure of due diligence and warrants charges of plagiarism.

Last Updated: 06/8/2012 12:50