44 Learning About Plagiarism and Guidelines for Using Information

Plagiarism: What It Is and How to Avoid It

Plagiarism occurs when you use someone else’s intellectual property without giving them credit—when you use material as if it is your own creation for the purpose of the current assignment. There are other ways to plagiarize as well, such as submitting your own previously marked work as a new assignment in a different course. Make sure you always understand your own institution’s plagiarism and cheating guidelines.

Academic institutions take plagiarism seriously; many discipline or even expel students who have plagiarized.


There are a number of different practices which could lead to or be defined as plagiarism, so it’s important that you understand what constitutes plagiarism and what doesn’t. Which of the following would be a kind of plagiarism?

    1. Overhearing someone’s great idea while riding in an elevator and then later sharing the idea and saying it was yours.
    2. Finding a beautiful photograph on the Web and using it as your profile picture on social media without showing the photographer’s name.
    3. Citing lines of poetry in a blog post without mentioning the poet.
    4. Copying and pasting the source analysis from an old essay into a new one for a new class.

How can you avoid plagiarism? It’s not hard once you know what you are doing. I always use what I call the “Chocolate Bar Analogy” when I talk to my students about plagiarism. It goes like this:

The Chocolate Bar Analogy
Would you do this? Then why would you do this?
You want a chocolate bar, you need a chocolate bar, so you head into the local convenience store just to “see” what kinds of chocolate bars there are. You want material for your assignment, you need material, so you head over to the computer just to “see” what is out there on your topic.
You find a good chocolate bar—it’s just what you need—so you put it in your pocket because you don’t want to “lose” it. You find some good material—it’s just what you need—so you copy and paste it into your assignment so you won’t “lose” it.
You head to the counter to pay for the rest of the stuff you found at the store, but you a) aren’t sure how to properly pay for the chocolate bar, so you just leave it in your pocket or b) you “forget” all about it. You head to the printer to print out your final assignment, but you a) aren’t sure how to properly cite the material you found online so you just leave it in your assignment or b) you “forget” all about it.
You would not do this! So don’t do this!

When I am teaching students to credit source material by citing properly, I say, “Don’t put the chocolate bar in your pocket!”

  1. Do your own work. In other words, always start by writing what you know about a subject, turning to sources only when you need to support your own ideas with authoritative backing, when there’s a knowledge gap you cannot fill on your own, or to satisfy requirements that you use a certain number of sources in an assignment.
  2. Cite the work immediately. If you add source material to your work, mark it or identify it in such a way that you will know it’s from a source and add it to your works cited list. It doesn’t matter as much if your citations are correct as long as they are present.

Students studying English or writing will use Modern Language Association (MLA) guidelines to format their papers and handle sources. MLA is discussed elsewhere in this text (see the appendices Resources for Working with MLA and Creating a Works Cited Page) but understand for now that to properly cite intellectual property—also called source materials—in your writing, you must do the following:

  • Mention the source’s author/creator (or anything that you can use to identify it) in your written work right at the point where the source is used.
  • Create a list of all of the sources you used in your assignment; you’ll do this by arranging them in a works cited list at the end of your essay.
  • Make sure sources on the works cited page are actually cited in your essay. If you read some source materials to learn more about your topic but do not mention them in your paper, you do not need to list them in the works cited list. But if you later end up using those sources in your paper, then you’ll need to add them to your works cited.


Copyright is a legal term that refers to the person (or people) who own and distribute a piece of information. The copyright holder has rights to that material, and if others use the material without getting permission first, they may be in violation of copyright. This can result in fines.

  • If you’re a student, your institution’s librarians can help you navigate copyright issues. They may also be able to get you copyrighted material through Interlibrary Loan.
  • As a student or faculty member, you may be able to access copyrighted material through the practice of “fair dealing” (below).
  • You might find copyrighted materials in your institution’s library.
  • You may be able to find similar materials in Open Educational Resources (OERs), like the one you’re reading now!

Fair Dealing for Academic Purposes

The concept of fair dealing allows students and instructors to use small amounts of copyrighted materials for a short-term, limited purpose—particularly for study, teaching, research, or increasing personal knowledge (see What is Fair Dealing? for more information).

In general, the following should be true if you claim fair dealing to work with copyrighted materials:

  • You will use them for a limited purpose. For example, you’ll use them to complete an assignment and then will return or release them. Specifically, you won’t retain the material to use at a later date.
  • You will not post them on the Web, make them available publicly, or share them with anyone else.
  • You will not make permanent copies of the material.
  • You will only use a small portion of the “whole” material. For example, using two or three chapters of a twenty-chapter book is a fine example of fair use; using twenty-four of twenty-five chapters without paying for them would not be considered fair use.
  • You will not benefit, monetarily, in any way from the material.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a not-for-profit organization that aims to support people in sharing creative works for others to build upon legally and to share.

When a user creates a piece of content (writing, art, photography, or just about anything), they may choose to put a Creative Commons licence on the material. The licence explains how people share, remix, repurpose, or in other ways use the material. If you use any of the materials in your work, you should include the Creative Commons license in your source citation.

Open Educational Resources

Open Education Resources are teaching and learning materials that are available for free use by students and teachers everywhere. The move toward OERs has really taken off recently—both to take advantage of the Internet and digital publishing and also to help control the skyrocketing cost of textbooks. Open resources are easy to access and use and are continually updated and revised. You’re reading one right now!

Wiki Sources

A wiki is a website that functions as a public, open encyclopedia or collection of information. The best known of these is Wikipedia. Wiki sources typically can be created and edited by anyone.

The best part of wikis is their openness, along with the fact that people collaborate to create them.

The worst part is that wikis can be created edited by anyone—including people who have no business doing so or, even worse, who intentionally enter false or defamatory information.

Because wikis are often created by people who don’t meet the academic definition of “expert,” instructors tend to discourage them as academic resources. That said, they can be good places to begin screening ideas and getting general information.

Torrent and BitTorrent Sites

A BitTorrent site is a website that encourages peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing. Files can consist of books, periodicals, music, film, data (many scientists use Torrent files to distribute large data packages) or virtually anything.

A major problem with these sites is that many of them engage in illegal file-sharing— particularly of music and film and lately of graphic novels. Notwithstanding the ethics involved, most of the sites are not secure, which raises the risk of users being implicated in illegal file-sharing activities. Most BitTorrent sites do not provide user anonymity and most can track (or at least record) IP addresses.

The best advice with BitTorrents: stay away from them unless you’re really good with technology and know exactly what you’re getting into.

Why is this worth mentioning? You’ll often be asked to watch film or access other resources as part of your classes. And, you’ll be asked to buy textbooks. You may be tempted to download a free book or movie through a Torrent site. Beware, and consider the implications first.

Reverse Image Search

Sometimes we find useful images online and wish to use them in our work, only to find we have no idea where they came from. You can now do a reverse image search to try and find the owner or creator of images on the Web.

One of the best of these is TinEye. Upload a copy of the image in question, and the TinEye engine will search for the original or oldest-known occurrence of the image. Google also has a reverse image search, and others are appearing on the Web as this is written.


What if you have an image that you found somewhere on the Internet and you want to use it in an assignment or some sort of publication, but you don’t remember where you found it. How will you credit the source? This is where knowing how to perform a reverse image search can come in handy.

  1. Go to Google and search for “image.”
  2. Click “images” at the top of that page.
  3. Pick an image and save it to your desktop or clipboard.
  4. Go to Upload your image and use TinEye to search for its origins. See what you find!

Text Attributions



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Advanced English Copyright © 2021 by Allison Kilgannon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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