Chapter 9 Research

9.2 Plagiarism

Plagiarism occurs when someone uses another person’s intellectual property and doesn’t give them credit. Intellectual property is defined as material or ideas envisioned and created by another person. There are many kinds of intellectual property, including books, articles, essays, stories, poems, films, photographs, works of art or craft, or even just ideas. For example, if you copy text out of a textbook or article and use it in your homework assignment so it looks like you wrote it – that’s plagiarism. If someone else thought of an idea and brought it into the world, they own it, and if you use their idea in your work, you have to acknowledge them as the actual owner. If you don’t, you’ve committed plagiarism. That’s not a good idea!

Plagiarism is a kind of academic dishonesty—a kind of theft. Colleges and universities take plagiarism seriously; assignments can get a grade of zero, and many institutions discipline or even expel students who are found to be plagiarizing.

Many educators used to believe that students plagiarized either because they were lazy or because they just didn’t care about anything but getting that final piece of paper: the degree or certificate. Both of these reasons are still true sometimes: we’ve all met people who don’t like to work hard (or at all!) or who, in the case of college, just want that piece of paper and don’t care how they get it.

But today, thanks to the work of innovative educators, instructors know that plagiarism and cheating are often motivated by more complicated factors.

As for you: how can you avoid plagiarism? It’s actually quite simple:

  1. As much as possible, 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 or when there’s a knowledge gap you cannot fill on your own. Or, of course, to satisfy requirements imposed by your instructor or professor who may ask you to use a certain number of sources in completing an assignment. But even then, much of the work should be your own.
  2. Take notes carefully. 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. Cite the work immediately and add it to your works cited list. (See 9.3 Referencing Sources)
  3. If you use someone else’s intellectual property, give them credit. If you bring their work into your assignment, you must mention them as the work’s owners. There are accepted formats to give credit which you will read about in the next section.

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.

Exercise: Identifying Plagiarism

Which of these would be a kind of plagiarism?

  • Copying written material from the Web and pasting it into your paper so it would look like you wrote it.
  • Overhearing someone’s great idea while riding in an elevator and then later sharing the idea and saying it was yours.
  • Finding a beautiful photograph on the Web and using it as your profile picture on social media without showing the photographer’s name.
  • Citing lines of poetry in a blog post without mentioning the poet.


All of the examples are kinds of plagiarism. Did you get them all correct? Remember, any time you use someone else’s intellectual property—of any kind—you must give them credit by acknowledging their name and giving information about the source.

Common Knowledge

There is no need to cite common knowledge. Common knowledge does not mean knowledge everyone has. It means knowledge that everyone can easily access. For example, most people do not know the date of George Washington’s death, but everyone can easily find that information. If the information or idea can be found in multiple sources and the information or idea remains constant from source to source, it can be considered common knowledge. This is one reason so much research is usually done for university writing—the more sources you read, the more easily you can sort out what is common knowledge: if you see an uncited idea in multiple sources, then you can feel secure that idea is common knowledge.

Guidelines for Using Information

In today’s digital age, with information seemingly at our fingertips, it’s important to understand some of the guidelines and restrictions that affect how we use that information. This is another important part of using sources correctly and avoiding plagiarism.


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 is not good! And it can result in fines.

What is the most important thing you need to know about copyright? Simple: If something is copyrighted, you cannot use it without getting permission; this may involve paying for permission.

  • If you’re a college student, your college librarians can help you navigate copyright issues. They may also be able to get you copyrighted material through inter-library loan.
  • As a college student or faculty member, you may be able to access copyrighted material through the practice of “fair use” or “fair dealing” (below).
  • You might find copyrighted materials in your college library.
  • You may be able to find similar materials in open educational resources (OERs) (like the one you’re reading now!) which can be copied and reused under a Creative Commons copyright.

Otherwise, the Canadian Guide to Copyright is your go-to location for everything you need to know about copyright in Canada.

Fair Dealing

Fair dealing is a legal term pertaining to users’ rights in Canada under copyright law. There are provisions that allow people to use parts of copyrighted material for specific purposes. Fair dealing applies to common law jurisdictions in the Commonwealth such as Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. The United States has a similar provision called fair use (see below). The six factors defining fair dealings include purpose, character, amount, effect of the dealing, nature of the work, and alternatives to the dealing. Canada’s provisions have become more flexible particularly after an amendment process that took several years with extensive public consultation. In July 2012, the Federal Government of Canada amended fair dealing (Section 29) as follows: Fair dealing for the purpose of research, private study, education, parody or satire does not infringe copyright.

Fair dealing provides ways for people to use others’ copyrighted work without infringing on the author’s copyright. This is especially important for students and educators when using and sharing information in research assignments and projects.

Fair Use for Academic Purposes

The concept of fair use allows students and teachers to use small amounts of copyrighted materials for a short-term, limited purpose—particularly for study, teaching, or research. The rules of fair use apply to the United States. The four factors determining fairness include purpose and character of the use; nature of the copyrighted work; amount and substantiality of the portion of the work used; and the effect of the use on the potential market or value of the work.

In general, the following should be true if you claim fair use 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 collects all sorts of materials and makes them available to the public for free use.

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, re-purpose, or in other ways use the material.

As a student, the Creative Commons has made a world of materials available to you. If you use any of the materials in your work, you should include the Creative Commons in your source citation.

Open Educational Resources

Open Educational Resources (OERs) are teaching and learning materials that are available for free use by students and teachers everywhere because they are under an open licence, such as a Creative Commons licence. 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!

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

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? 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 all the time.

Exercise: Reverse Image Search

  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!

Not only is it correct and ethical to avoid plagiarism and give credit to authors and sources, but it also adds credibility to your paper. When your paper cites reliable sources, it looks good on you that you have done good research and backed up your information.

Text Attributions

This chapter is a remix of the following chapters:


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