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In my opinion

Redefining plagiarism

One professor proposes to clear up the discrepancies left by the current definition.


Plagiarism is perceived to be a simple concept that can be explained to students with the goal of ensuring that credit is given when information is taken from other sources. Plagiarism is often defined simplistically and absolutely, like this from Merriam-Webster:

  1. the passing off of the ideas or words of another as one’s own work
  2. to use another’s work without crediting the source

However, what needs to be cited is often unclear and there are numerous contexts where different citation expectations have been established, such as when developing policies or textbooks. The simplistic definition would find that these actions constitute plagiarism. Clearly, a better understanding of plagiarism is required.

In practice, plagiarism is seen as a breach of moral and ethical codes of conduct. In law, plagiarism derives its existence from laws regarding copyright, fraud and unfair competition. Copyright infringement and fraud are sometimes seen in academia.

  • Copyright is the legally enforceable right of the creator of a work to claim ownership of their work. Plagiarism is a form of literary copyright infringement.
  • Fraud is an intentional deception made for personal gain. Plagiarism occurs when a person knowingly misrepresents someone else’s literary work as their own for personal gain.

A common defence presented by people accused of plagiarism is that they did not intend to plagiarize. While most academics dismiss this argument, the law does not. Jon Siegel, a law professor at George Washington University, argues that the law distinguishes between negligence and intentional wrongdoing. For example, in property law, it isn’t theft if you didn’t intend to take someone else’s property. Professor Siegel argues that if it can be shown or suggested that a person was negligent in failing to cite a source, it may still be embarrassing and humbling, but it isn’t plagiarism since it wasn’t intentional.

Determining whether plagiarism has occurred is challenging. I have identified five factors that must be considered when determining whether plagiarism has occurred:

  1. common knowledge
  2. originality
  3. non-copyrightable information
  4. established practices
  5. intent

Common knowledge is knowledge that is known by everyone or nearly everyone in a community. Common knowledge doesn’t need to be cited. As a person learns and advances in their chosen discipline, the breadth of their common knowledge increases, which exemplifies the nebulous boundaries of plagiarism.

Originality has two relevant meanings: (1) created for the first time, and (2) presentation in a unique, creative, or distinctive manner. Only the original work is protected by copyright. Below are two quotes from Hamlet, by William Shakespeare.

  • I am very glad to see you.
  • To be, or not to be: that is the question.

The first is not original and does not require citation. The second is original and requires citation when used in scholarly articles.

Non-copyrightable information is established in law that data — facts, discoveries and processes — are not protected by copyright. Unless there is significant originality in how data are presented, it is not plagiarism if they are reproduced without citation.

The established practice regarding citation depends on the context of the work:

  • Persons preparing scholarly articles are expected to cite information taken from other sources. Common knowledge is not usually cited.
  • Persons preparing policies tend to review existing policies from other organizations. Sections are commonly copied verbatim or with minor modification, but rarely are these sources cited.
  • Administrators routinely sign their name to letters prepared by administrative assistants, public relations personnel and human resources personnel. Rarely is the true author acknowledged.
  • Instructors routinely create assignments and exams using questions taken from textbooks. The questions are often used with little or no modification, but are rarely cited.
  • Textbooks present a plethora of fundamental research and present many real-world examples to relate the material. Yet rarely is this information cited.

Intent points to the underlying motives and goals of the author. Professor Siegel identifies several factors that hint to the authors’ intent: the amount of information copied, the nature of the information copied, the past actions of the writer and the mental state of the writer.

Therefore, based on my research, I present this revised definition of plagiarism:

To knowingly pass off the original and distinctive ideas or words of another author as one’s own work without crediting the author and when the context of such use expects the work to be credited.

Plagiarism is a nebulous concept with numerous factors that must be considered when determining if it has occurred. Some of the complications and considerations include:

  • that the common definition of plagiarism is inconsistent with established legal principles and established practices in many contexts;
  • that reviewers may not understand what constitutes plagiarism in a given context;
  • that citation requirements change as information becomes common knowledge;
  • determining the intent of the author.

A better understanding of plagiarism is critical to ensuring students are correctly informed and allegations are handled fairly.

This is a summary article. The complete article is available at

Roy Jensen is a professor of chemistry at Grant MacEwan University.

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  1. Farah Mendlesohn / April 18, 2012 at 16:09

    Academics do not dismiss the “unintentional” defense: we argue that one of the duties of the academic (and of the student) is to learn what plagiarism is and not do it, so it is penalised just as the wrong answer is penalised, because it is, in a way, a wrong answer.

  2. Michelle Swab / April 18, 2012 at 20:13

    While I applaud any effort that attempts to add nuance to definitions of plagiarism, I’m somewhat confused by the references to copyright in both this piece and the longer one available here:

    There are some very important reasons to distinguish between plagiarism and copyright infringement. They are outlined by Professor Laura Murray in this excellent article.

  3. Richard / June 19, 2012 at 16:12

    You universities should first set a good example for students.