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.

Learn More

Top 3 sites

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.

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.


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