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ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

The Worst Advice We've Heard About Plagiarizing

Plagiarism isn't a fun topic. Let's face it—anyone who has spent time in academic pursuits has heard the stern lectures from professors warning of the dangers of plagiarism. The consequences of it can be equally unsettling: a failing grade, a feeling of disgrace, loss of credibility, and even expulsion are all very real possibilities.

But don't worry, we've got your back, and will discuss the absolute worst advice we've heard about plagiarizing. Pay attention and you'll avoid the embarrassment and destruction of credibility that plagiarism can bring.

Bad Idea #1: You can use whole sentences or paragraphs from Wikipedia

Since Wikipedia content is created by a conglomeration of several writers and editors, there is a false assumption that entire sentences or passages can be lifted from it and used in otherwise "original" papers.

The operative word here is "false." Regardless of how many writers contributed to a passage or content, and regardless of the fact that the content is online and highly edited, it's still plagiarism to claim the text as your own. In addition, Wikipedia content will be easily picked up by any online plagiarism detector since it is a highly visited website and therefore highly ranked in search engine algorithms.

It's also important to keep in mind that Wikipedia is not considered to be a legitimate "source" in academic research and writing. Treating it as a source could result in a lowered grade and plagiarizing it could most certainly result in that—or worse.

Bad Idea #2: You can piece together pieces of several different free online essays on the topic

If you've ever watched an online plagiarism detector perform its search, you'd know that this is likewise bad advice. Specifically, these programs are designed to crawl millions of webpages to find content that is word-for-word of the text submitted to them. It doesn't matter if the content is pulled from a hundred different sources, plagiarism detection software can find all of them—including short passages of approximately five words.

There is also a false assumption that goes along with this one, stating that as long as the copied passages are less than a certain percentage of the original work, it's fine to plagiarize. Whether you copy a passage of five words or 500—the act (and therefore, the consequence of that act) is the same.

Whether you copy a passage of five words or 500—it's still plagiarism
Whether you copy a passage of five words or 500—it's still plagiarism. Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash.

Bad Idea #3: You can plagiarize since there are no original ideas left

While it's true that there is nothing new under the sun, this reality doesn't give you an excuse to claim another's work as your own. When writers and literary scholars mention that there are no original ideas left (another way to state the adage I mentioned above), they are referring to story archetypes that have been used since the dawn of human existence. And sure—most storylines or plots have been done before, in some version, either in movies or books. Characters change and settings change, but there are certainly repetitions of conflicts and archetypes in literature that can't be avoided.

However, there will always be a way for you to approach the topic with fresh eyes—and with YOUR eyes. Even if your thoughts are similar to others', you will still express them in a unique way because you are a unique individual. There is no one else in the entire world who looks, thinks, and processes ideas exactly like you do. This means that the work you produce, whether it is writing or research or both, should be entirely original in the way it is written and compiled. Since every writer is an individual, it is highly unlikely that he or she will choose word-for-word the exact phrasing of another writer who has broached the topic previously.

Bad Idea #4: If the source is obscure enough, no one will know you plagiarized

Technology is an amazing thing and plagiarism software is part of that emerging technology. While the plagiarism-checker programs have varying abilities and scopes of their search, your theft of another's words could always be discovered with the right one. The question then becomes: Are you willing to run that risk?

Even if a source is entirely offline (very few are nowadays) and completely obscure, a professor paying attention will potentially be able to detect plagiarism because the writing style and word choice will be so very different than your own. Many professors hand out in-class assignments and tests that require you to write in class. This means that they have a sample of your writing, which clues them in to your writing style and the extent of your vocabulary. Anything you turn in that is in glaring contrast will immediately be suspected of plagiarism by a professor who is looking for it.

Bad Idea #5: You won't get penalized if you accidentally plagiarize something

As nice as this would be, it simply isn't true. Many universities have a strict no-plagiarism policy, and any instance of it could be dealt with harshly, including expulsion, even if it was accidental. In fact, freelance writers who publish online content often run their work through a plagiarism detector to make sure they haven't accidentally plagiarized someone. As a professional writer, this type of accidental plagiarism could still have the same consequences of intentional plagiarism, including lawsuits, losing their job, and loss of credibility in their industry.

The fact is: it's an easy mistake to make, especially when you read a lot of content about a particular topic. Sometimes, thoughts go through our brains that we assume to be original but are actually thoughts we've read somewhere and simply forgot we had read it (in that exact combination of words).

Professors understand this and have likely dealt with the situation in their own research and writing. However, any responsible researcher or writer will take steps to ensure that his or her work is original and that it cites all sources quoted, whether directly or indirectly. This involves checking for plagiarism, even of the accidental variety, which is easy to do with all of the free plagiarism-checker websites available. When you submit your work for class or for a writing assignment given to you by your company, you should take these same steps.

Bad Idea #6: Everyone does it, so you should too

I think most mothers have a similar reply when their rebellious teenager uses this argument to justify doing something against house rules: If everyone jumps off a bridge, would you follow them?

While it's a somewhat comedic anecdote, there is truth in it. Just because it's widely done doesn't mean it's right. And just because other people get away with it doesn't mean you will avoid getting caught, as well. In much the same sense that a police officer or judge will not be inclined to ignore laws broken simply because other people break them—neither will a professor be inclined to excuse plagiarism, simply because he or she has seen it attempted often over the span of their career.

Beyond these facts, it's important to understand that plagiarism is theft—theft of another's words and ideas, while claiming them as your own. In the same sense you would not be a thief in other facets of your life, don't be a thief of another's writing and research.

Bad Idea #7: If it isn't copyrighted, you can plagiarize it

Copyright law is not as complex as you might think. In fact, once something is published online or as an original hardcopy, it retains an original copyright, whether the author attaches the copyright symbol (©) to it or not.

Obviously, not every author would pursue litigation for copyright infringement, but the possibility is still there. This is especially true if you publish content online—whether academic or otherwise—without attributing it to its original author. Just as there is software to detect plagiarism, there is likewise software for authors and website managers to use that detects if anyone is using their original content online. With this software, they are able to find the website that is using their original content, as well as the website's owner (through information you provided when you registered the website). This means that the threat of lawsuits is always there, particularly if you are publishing online.

Even if you're not publishing it online, plagiarism detector software can locate the original content online and mark yours as being plagiarized. And this software is freely available for professors or employers to use.

Plagiarism can ruin your reputation and result in expulsion
Plagiarism can ruin your reputation and result in expulsion.

Bad Idea #8: If you just rewrite another person's paper, it isn't plagiarizing

This is one of the most commonly held myths about plagiarism—thinking that rewriting or rearranging the words of an entire section or paper is somehow not plagiarism. While this method might help you avoid some online plagiarism detectors, depending on the source you're rewriting, it can still be highly visible to your professor that you have done this.

The problem with this method of plagiarizing is that it is both underhanded and still not your original thought. There are some cases in which you will need to do this in order to avoid quoting so much, you still need a citation following the rewrite to direct the reader toward the original source.

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