Skip to: Navigation | Content | Sidebar | Footer

Articles / For Students

How to Spot and Avoid Online Plagiarism

What is Plagiarism?

A ten page essay is due in twelve hours, but it's barely begun. The student is desperate. He begins to panic and piece together information from different sources; copying and pasting until he creates something resembling a coherent narrative. The next week, when he receives a failing grade and a formal letter to appear before a disciplinary board, the student realizes the gravity of his actions. He used the thoughts and words of others without giving due credit.

This is plagiarism. It is not a new concept. People have passed the work of others off as their own for centuries. The ease with which people can plagiarize today, however, is new. As technology reshapes learning, and more degree programs become available online, plagiarizers are finding new ways to not do their work. A study done by iParadigms, and reported by Marc Parry in The Chronicle of Higher Education, shows that high school and college students do most of their plagiarizing through social media and sharing sites, such as Facebook and Wikipedia.

Many have weighed in on the topic of the blurred lines between research and plagiarism. Students today live in a world where information access is constant. They share files with each other through torrent sites, downloading music and television shows without much thought as to who really owns what. Articles, especially those found on sites editable by the public, according to Trip Gabriel at The New York Times, are "counted, essentially, as common knowledge." The information is there for the students, so they use it because they see it as belonging to them. This illustrates how mukry plagiarism has become as technology and the Internet evolve.

Types of Plagiarism

Intentional plagiarism is knowingly claiming another person's words and ideas as one's own. It is actively deciding to exclude citations, withhold credentials, or misdirect readers to false resources., a website devoted to educating students and instructors on the topic, developed a spectrum of the types of plagiarism. Using web 2.0 terms and concepts, they illustrate the different ways works can be stolen. A sample of their spectrum is below.

  • #1. "Clone": Copying another's work word for word.
  • #5. "Recycle": Self-plagiarizing. Yes, this is a thing, though it is a very gray area in the grand scheme of things. A writer who tries to pass a story or essay they previously wrote as something new is self-plagiarizing.
  • #7. "Mashup": Piecing together content taken verbatim from several sources.
  • #8. "404 Error": Improperly citing or attributing sources to information.
  • #10. "Re-Tweet": The proper citations are present, but the surrounding content does not contain enough original thought.

With the changing face of online education, and the lack of a global definition of what plagiarism is, it becomes more difficult to determine if a writer intended to steal someone else's work. Schools have their own examples of plagiarism. Though they agree on what is plagiarism, they do not make it clear how to determine if something was intentional or accidental. Nor do they describe how new media sources (e.g. Facebook, Twitter) fit into plagiarism cases. There are times when the way to cite information is unclear because MLA, Chicago, or other guidelines have yet to develop a rule for citing tweets, for example.

At the same time, there are also people who accidentally plagiarize. These students do not set out to steal the work of others. Their plagiarism comes in the form of poor citations, misquoting a source, or taking information out of its intended context. It can also occur when a student uses information from an unknown source. In other words: they have a quote in their notes, but they cannot remember its origin. These are honest mistakes that can be fixed in the editing stage if the student knows what to look for.

Tips: How to Avoid Plagiarizing

  • Don't Do It. The easiest way to avoid plagiarizing is to not do it. It will take less time to do the proper research and form original thoughts and opinions than it will be to go through the disciplinary process when caught.
  • Integrity and Conduct. Every school has an academic integrity policy or student code of conduct that details what not to do with respect to cheating and plagiarizing. Following these rules will help ensure number one.
  • Stay Organized. When researching, do as Purdue suggests: make clear notes on original thoughts and the thoughts of others. Color code with different pens or highlighters. Use sticky notes to mark resources versus content. Keep a list or rough works cited page of each source consulted. Even if it is not used in the final draft, it's good information to have.
  • Cite Everything. Use a citation guide and create a works cited page, in-text citations, or footnotes. Even if the format for certain resources is unclear, include it.
  • Ask For Help. Talk to a professor, writing center tutor, academic advisor, or a librarian about how, what, and when to cite. If they don't know for sure, they will be able to provide the next step.
  • Speak Your Mind. Remember that original thoughts should be enhanced by quoted resources and not the other way around. The research is necessary, but it is more important to show a personal understanding of and opinion on the information than it is to highlight what others have said.
  • Re-read & Edit. Read the essay several times and have friends read it for you. This will ensure that it makes sense, contains mostly original content, and all quotes, paraphrases, and references are credited correctly.

Repercussions of Plagiarizing

The disciplinary course taken in cases of plagiarism varies from school to school. In many cases, the students' intentions are not a factor in deciding the punishment for plagiarizing. It does not matter if something was accidentally misquoted, it still counts as plagiarism. Ignorance of the rules regarding this issue is not an excuse. Texas A&M University lists several possible penalties for those caught plagiarizing. The list includes, but is not limited to: redoing the assignment, failing the course, expulsion from the university, and a note on the student's permanent record. Colleges and universities take academic dishonesty seriously. Instructors use programs and software, such as and basic Google searches, that compare each essay to vast databases of online resources and articles. TurnItIn compares each essay to 20 million websites and over 300 million previously submitted student essays. Teachers can easily find a list of internet paper mills.

Online students can expect the same punishments for plagiarism. The instructors are not directly in front of the students, but they continue to monitor and search for copied material. They do not become lenient because of the semi-anonymous nature of online education. If anything, they are more aware of the possibility of cheating in any form. Being aware of the types of plagiarism and taking precautions to avoid making a mistake will save students from suspension, failure, or expulsion.

FIND ACCREDITED DEGREES is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.