Some Thoughts About Plagiarism Part 3: Four Types of Plagiarism and How to Avoid Them

Dear Students,

In my recent Internet lurking I came a tumblr post or tweet by a student that said something like this

“I don’t know how people plagiarize on purpose. I’m terrified that I will fail because I accidentally used the same wording as a 16th-century manual on toasters.”

(If you are wondering why I didn’t link to the exact tweet, go ahead and try to find a social media post from twitter, tubmlr, or instagram you saw as part of a list posted on someone’s blog two weeks ago.) 

Pinterest Some Thoughts About Plagiarism Part 3 Four Types of Plagiarism and How to Avoid ThemMy point is, accidental plagiarism is a real fear for some students. This became even clearer as I tried to find the above post and found myself in the corner of the Internet devoted to this topic. I want to help you out with that right now: While certain word combinations are common, the chances of you describing a specific subject in the exact same words and grammar structure as another human being by accident are so low they are basically impossible. What is more likely is that you might be doing something you don’t realize is plagiarism.

In this post, I’m going to define four different types of plagiarism and tell you how to avoid them. The goal is to clarify plagiarism and thus help reduce anxiety. If you have any questions, please talk to your teacher.

This is the third and final entry in a series discussing plagiarism. You can read Part 1: An Open Letter to Students Dispelling Myths About Plagiarism and Part 2: What Sets Off My Teacher Spidey-Senses on the Enlightium Academy Blog.

Conventional Plagiarism

I’m including standard, run-of-the-mill plagiarism to cover all my bases. It goes like this: You need help on an assignment. You turn to the Internet or another source. You find something that fits. You copy all or part of it into your assignment and turn it in as an original answer.

Plagiarism of Ideas through Synonyms 

You have found a source that exactly fits the assignment, but copy/pasting is bad. You know this, and you have no intention of plagiarizing. So you go through and summarize each sentence in your own words. Here and there you borrow a phrase, because you can’t think of a better way to say it. Okay, maybe you borrow more phrases than you intended, but the text is not the same and the plagiarism checker doesn’t find a problem, so it’s not plagiarism, right?

Wrong! This is not your original writing. Sentence for sentence, the ideas and grammar structures are exactly the same as those in your source. This is still plagiarism.

Here is another way to think about this: rewriting content sentence by sentence is paraphrasing. Most teachers consider paraphrasing a form of quotation. A quote is not your original work, and unless you cite it properly, it is plagiarized. In addition, your teacher probably has a limit on how much of your paper can be made up of quotes. If your whole paper is paraphrased, then it is over the limit.


Your teacher assigned a paper on a topic you already wrote about for another course. Score! You make a few tune-ups, change the date and turn it in. Major time-saver.

This is faulty thinking, based on the idea that the purpose of an assignment is to submit something - anything. In fact, an essay is an assessment tool and a way for your teacher to see if you have learned certain skills that were taught in the class, one of which is most certainly the process of writing an essay. It’s also a teaching tool, that helps you learn.

Third Party Plagiarism

Someone else wrote the paper for you and you turned it in as your own. Now, on the surface, this seems pretty straight-forward, right? Write your own papers.

Another way to avoid confusion is to keep your drafts and outlines. This will keep you on track with your ideas, and will also help your teacher see where your ideas came from.

I know plagiarism is a difficult topic to discuss, and the last thing I would want to do is make someone feel like I am accusing him or her. I do, in fact, know that the majority of my students don’t plagiarize. But I also know that in a digital age where everything is at your fingertips it’s a temptation and that understanding what is and isn’t plagiarism is difficult. So I am asking you to engage with your teachers on this topic and let them know if you have any questions or comments.

Bio of a Plagiarism Expert:

When I first saw the description of myself as a plagiarism expert, I was startled. I don’t think of myself this way. I just think of myself as a teacher with good observational skills (which is really just a requirement for teachers).

I’ve taught in quite a few different settings, and I still remember being a student. I tell my students that I have a super power: I can tell at a glance if the formatting of a paper is even a little bit off. I can tell if the margins are wrong; I can tell if the font size is wrong; I can tell if the spacing has been selectively changed to stretch the length of a paper. Of course, with word count technology, paper length is rarely anymore determined by page count.

I can also tell if the wording is unnecessarily complicated to extend the length of the paper. I can also often tell if something is partly or completely plagiarized. It turns out that a lot of the skills I had to learn as a student (textual analysis, word choice, identifying voice) are the same skills that help me identify unoriginal writing. And I’m not alone in this. Most teachers I know are pretty aware.

What I want students to get from this mini-series is a way to enter into the discussion about plagiarism. I fear that so far most of the communications I’ve had with students about plagiarism is a big sign with an “X”. Don’t do it! But like all issues, this is complex. General and specific discussion can increase understanding, decrease fear, and allow students to see plagiarism as more than one more arbitrary rule in academics. I don’t want to wait to talk to students about plagiarism until it comes up as an issue with their assignment.

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