What is plagiarism?

What is “plagiarism”? And what is at the core of plagiarism?


Here are four dictionary definitions of “plagiarism” or “to plagiarize”:

plagiarism. “an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author.” (dictionary.com)

plagiarize. “To take and use as one’s own the ideas or writings of another.” (Webster’s, 1984)

plagiarize. “to take someone else’s words, ideas, etc. and copy them, pretending that they are your own” (Longman, 2000)

plagiarize. “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own : use (another’s production) without crediting the source” and “to commit literary theft : present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source” (Merriam-Webster, 2005).

UH Manoa’s Student Conduct Code places plagiarism in the subsection called “Acts of dishonesty”, and defines it as follows:

“The term ‘plagiarism’ includes, but is not limited to, the use, by paraphrase or direct quotation, of the published or unpublished work of another person without full and clear acknowledgement. It also includes the unacknowledged use of materials prepared by another person or agency engaged in the selling of term papers or other academic materials.”     (University of Hawai`i at Manoa, 2009)

These definitions describe what a plagiarized product is, but notice that they come from a viewpoint of categorizing plagiarism as academic dishonesty. What is it that really underlies plagiarism? What does plagiarism in a text really indicate? At the heart of the matter, an instance of plagiarism is evidence that, for the specific text in question, the writer did not incorporate sources according to accepted standards of academic discourse. It’s possible that this “failure” was intentional, but in many (if not most) instances, it is quite likely that it was unintentional.

Using sources in scholarly work is not a simple thing to learn. Angelil-Carter (2000) likens it to learning ballet, and claims that students should be allowed to apprentice into academic writing, “’trying on’ academic discourse” (p. 37) the way a ballet student may start by trying on the shoes of an expert. The ELI fully agrees with this notion that, in terms of learning academic discourse, students are capable apprentices.

The difficulty of learning to write academically is compounded by the fact that academic discourse is actually a language of its own. However, it’s a language that has no native speakers; everyone who uses academic discourse with fluency and expertise had to learn it as a second language, and went through their own period of “apprenticeship”. Of course, one of the best ways to learn a second language is to imitate effective users of that language – but when it comes to academic discourse, you’re not supposed to imitate them too closely or you’ll be considered as having committed the “crime” of plagiarism. In fact, any time an author misuses sources in scholarly work, it’s branded as plagiarism.


Next: Use of Sources