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Plagiarising the ideas of others is obviously a big deal. You are stealing the hard work of others and misleading your peers by pretending it is your original work.

But why is plagiarising words and paragraphs considered a big deal? I mean, isn't the point of academic effort to transmit ideas and knowledge? Who cares what specific words were used to transmit it? It's not like we are writing poems here: the words themselves don't matter, the underlying ideas do.

For example, say you are writing an article, and you need to add a short section on some background information. Your original source for this information is some book by a guy called Juntao, in which he writes

It is well-known that the K-Group is hyperdifferentiable and pseudo-geometric. It can further be shown, given certain assumptions on the continuity of the underlying complex manifolds, that the associated Einstein-curves are super-composites and universally dense in the field of measurable spaces. Indeed, this was shown by Hilbert and Plato in their seminal work on uncountable and analytically algebraic left-Sylvester Deligne graphs.

Say you need to provide this information in your paper. What’s the problem if you just copy it verbatim? I mean, I could write it in my own words, easily. But why should I be forced to waste time on that? Why is it a problem if I just use the above formulation?

As long as you refer to the original material, such as by ending the section with

For more information on this material and proofs of the stated theorems, we refer to the works of Hilbert and Plato [1840]. A complete summary of the material can be found in Juntao [1998].

then everything ought to be fine, isn’t it? And yet, there are question like this, where somebody wanted to "seek justice" just because somebody else stole a few sentences of his.

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    Let me say again here, that plagiarism involves lack of citation, which represents the work of others as your own. It isn't that quotation marks are some magic incantation that gets you off the hook. You need to be clear who is the source of the words, whether literally copied or not, whether paraphrased or not, whether "quoted" or not. Citation is the magic incantation. Quoting helps one delimit what is being used, but isn't the essence of it. Citation is the essence of it. Moreover, you need to be clear in what you are capturing. Quoting helps you do that. – Buffy Feb 7 at 21:06
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    Your example above would have been clear if you end with "The above passage comes from Juntao..." As you write it, it isn't clear. – Buffy Feb 7 at 21:11
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    What you're talking about is called citation. And yes, it's perfectly fine. No one has a problem with citation. Plagiarism is exactly the same as citation, with one key difference: you don't actually cite the work you're lifting from. That's all there is to it. – Apologize and reinstate Monica Feb 7 at 21:40
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    Paraphrasing -- writing in your own words -- is not a waste of your time. If you can't do it, you don't understand it. If you can do it, you show your readers (and professor) that you do understand it. You still need that citation, even when you paraphrase. – Bob Brown Feb 7 at 23:12
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    Can I also point out to Shi Sen that not all academia is scientific in nature, that there is research to be done in disciplines such as history and political theory, and that in those disciplines the words may be the actual ideas, not just the vehicle. So plagiarism really is a big deal in those disciplines. (I personally also find it a problem in scientific communication as well, but I just wanted to remind everyone that this is academia.SE not sciencechat.SE ) – Yemon Choi Feb 8 at 13:20

12 Answers 12

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Per your example, you are not, in fact, "forced to waste time" finding another way to express the idea that another author had. You can just copy the passage down verbatim, but to do so without putting it in quotes and citing it is plagiarism. If you write a publication that has no quotes in it, you are essentially claiming that you wrote the entire thing yourself. If you have copied text verbatim, that is false. You are taking credit for someone else's work, which is rather frowned upon in academia.

Authors should be deliberate and unambiguous in their language, so finding the right words to express an idea isn't always a trivial task. A lot of work can go into a sentence that is succinct, precise, and understandable. Your choices are to either find different words to express that idea, or give someone else credit for having done the work already.

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    Careful here. If you "put it in quotes" but don't provide a citation, then it is still plagiarism. – Buffy Feb 7 at 21:34
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    Addendum: in mathematical contexts, statements are produced in quite formal language, limiting the variability - quotes are not required in standing definitions where modification of text may affect understanding or precision of the formulation. But, of course, if not a well-known concept, the originator must be cited. The sentence of OP, however, is not a formal mathematical statement by more a "narrative" one, and that requires quotes to clarify that this formulation is indeed lifted from another source. – Captain Emacs Feb 7 at 21:36
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    "Careful here. If you "put it in quotes" but don't provide a citation, then it is still plagiarism." – Captain Man Feb 7 at 22:16
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    @MarkAmery "If you were right, I would agree with you." --William F. Buckley – Bob Brown Feb 8 at 2:44
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    @Noldorin No, paraphrasing is not a grey area. Plagiarism is using the words or ideas of another and though they were your own. No matter how much I might paraphrase, if I'm using your idea, I plagiarize if I do not cite. – Bob Brown Feb 8 at 2:48
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Having been plagiarized before, I found three things irritating:

  1. Plagiarists seem lazy. Instead of writing something in their own words and adding their own knowledge to it, they simply copied what I and others wrote and stitched it together into a semi-coherent whole. When I write formally, I spend a lot of time to get the words right, and I don't think it's fair to simply copy my work. (Particularly when they don't credit me for the work.) If you get the same reward (a publication) for copying as you do for producing something original, that does not seem to be incentivizing the hard work that produces valuable research.

  2. Plagiarism at the sentence level seems to lead to hard-to-read writing. One sentence from here, one sentence their own, another half a sentence from somewhere else, etc. Mix in inconsistent vocabularies, the use of a thesaurus to trip up plagiarism detection software, and rearranging sentences to trip up plagiarism detection software. That's a recipe for bad writing. To be honest I think making plagiarized writing good would take more time than writing something original in the first place. Also, I think the opportunity cost for someone who is not a fluent speaker of the language they are writing in exceeds the time savings from plagiarism. (My impression is that many non-fluent people who plagiarize do so because they don't believe they can write as well as a fluent speaker. But this tends to not work well, and doesn't help them learn the language as much as writing would.)

  3. Plagiarists sometimes don't seem to understand the passages they copy. This might be because plagiarism seems to be correlated with poor reading skills. A plagiarized sentence says X is true and then later the authors argue "not X has already been established..."

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    +1 just for pointing out the "hard-to-read" writing style. If I come across an elegant sentence or two in a sea (puddle) of awkward communication, I'm putting quotes around it and googling. It raises my hackles and I start viewing the document with suspicion. – Pam Feb 8 at 9:13
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    I could have wrote this. +1 – Alchimista Feb 8 at 9:37
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    Citing verbatim has its places, especially if you cite a technical standard or a definition of something. But it should always be very obvious, such as: "The National Institute of Standards and Technology defines <...> as: [Blockquote]\Cite[...] – MechMK1 Feb 8 at 12:14
  • @DavidStockinger If there is a whole coherent passage that describes concepts or related work for a new publication quite perfectly, I would feel that it would save the writer as well as readers already familiar with that text and therefore the research community as a whole quite some time if that would simply be copied (by all means with citation!) instead of rewritten again (perhaps less well). Yes the more one would need to stitch existing text and one's own text together the less helpful such an approach becomes. Still, sometimes I do find people copy less than would be optimal out of fear – Frank Hopkins Feb 12 at 17:38
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In scientific work there is more to plagiarism than just crediting people for the work that they do. But first, an aside in the difference between copyright infringement and plagiarism.

Suppose that I find a publisher (unlikely) who will let me take an early edition of Goethe's Faust and publish it under the name Buffy St. Magnus, with no indication anywhere that it is from Faust. I can do that legally, since the work is not under copyright, though some recent editions may be. I don't use quote marks or anything, but even if I do, it is plagiarism. Plagiarism, but not copyright infringement. I'll be condemned (well St. Magnus, anyway). But I can't be sued.

Suppose, alternatively, that in writing a new book, that I take a chapter (not the entirety of the work, but a substantial part) from a recent novel of, say, Louise Erdrich and incorporate it into my own work. Suppose that I'm clear, using quotes or whatever, and giving proper citations of the original. Since I cited it (quotes or not), it isn't plagiarism. But whoever owns copyright to the original will likely object and I'll be sued, almost certainly, for copyright infringement. So, copyright infringement, but not plagiarism. This would also be the likely outcome if I make small changes or paraphrase parts of it.

In the latter case, if I do the same thing but don't give a citation. Then is is both plagiarism and copyright infringement and I'll be both sued and condemned.

But, suppose that what we have is scientific writing instead. Note that scientific papers have a context, usually expressed in their own citations and their bibliography. There is more here than just who wrote it, there is the complete scientific context in which it was written. A scholar reading the work, sometimes need to explore that context directly. If the paper makes that impossible, by plagiarizing another, for example, the chain is broken. St. Magnus says the buck stops here. But really it doesn't. If I just copied from Shi Sen, then a reader of my work has no easy way to find the original and thus explore the context expressed there.

That is what makes scientific plagiarism special.

If it were only about attribution, then self plagiarism wouldn't be a thing. I'm the source of the words, even though I used them before. But if I don't cite myself properly on the prior use, others are cut off from the complete context.

Also, if were just about attribution then putting it in quotes and providing an incomplete citation, say, just the author's name, then it wouldn't be plagiarism either. But most would consider such an incomplete citation to be wrong for some reason, whether related to plagiarism or not. Ancient authors are often quoted this way, of course, but not living (or recent) ones in scientific literature.

To avoid plagiarism, or self plagiarism, you need to cite and you need to be clear about what you are "capturing" from the early work, just to help other scholars find that original context when needed. You can do this in many ways, but you need to be clear about it. Putting a few words of others in the middle of a sentence that I otherwise write is a situation that makes quote marks especially useful. For a paragraph, I might want to indent instead, with the citation immediately following (or at the beginning). But it has to be clear.

However, if I cite properly, avoiding plagiarism, but still copy "too much" (a value judgement) then I'm still open to a charge of copyright infringement. Any copyright holder can make the charge and file a suit. It is then up to others (courts, juries, ...) to decide whether I overstepped the bounds.

But note the important difference. It is lack of citation that makes it plagiarism. It is giving the impression that the words, ideas, whatever, are mine, and not those of the originator. It is the appropriation that makes it wrong, not the lack of "quoting".

That said, quoting formally, can help you make it clear what is yours and what is not and that clarity is important.

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    Related to my question on your answer on the linked question: Your stance boils down to: If it is properly cited, it isn't plagiarism. If it isn't clear what of the original work I am using (words, ideas, or both) how can it be properly cited? – Mr.Mindor Feb 8 at 0:17
  • @Mr.Mindor Yes, it has to be clear. But that is a different question as to whether you are claiming something for your own. Paraphrasing can be plagiarism or not, depending on the attribution. If I attribute it to myself it is plagiarism, otherwise not. My stance is that we should be clear about the words we use, only charging plagiarism when it meets the "definition that is", not the "definition we want it to be". – Buffy Feb 8 at 1:31
  • Good point risen. Preserving context and a chain flow. – Alchimista Feb 8 at 9:42
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    So you're arguing that if you cite but then copy without quotes from an old document (for which copyright has expired), then you can't be guilty of anything? Copyright is a legal construct that has limited duration. Or are you implicitly assuming a moral copyright that can be violated indefinitely? I would argue that there are two kinds of plagiarism: ideas / scientific plagiarism (the kind you're talking about), and plagiarism of wording (for which citation alone isn't adequate.) Attribution of the wording via quotes is also necessary, or more than minor paraphrasing changes for big chunks – Peter Cordes Feb 8 at 14:36
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    I argued this in more detail in my answer on When to give up seeking justice after you've been plagiarized?. (Which I just edited to add a bit about en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_rights of an author (including the right of attribution), which some countries do protect in perpetuity by law as part of copyright law, unlike the normal limited-term copyrights on books that we're more familiar with. I hadn't realized this, but I'd argue that plagiarism-of-wording is separate from the violation of the author's moral right.) – Peter Cordes Feb 8 at 14:52
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If you present the words as your own, then plagiarizing the words is equivalent to plagiarizing the idea.

When you submit written work, putting your name on it implies that you are responsible for its content.

But why is plagiarising words and pharagraphs considered a big deal?

If the work contains someone else's written words, and you don't cite the original author, then you are effectively taking credit for that written idea. Claiming credit for someone else's idea is plagiarism, and is typically a punishable offense in academia.

If you want to save time by include someone else's quote verbatim, then there are standards for quoting and properly citing the text.

Why is it a problem if I just use the above formulation?

However, if the majority of the written content is copied from another author, then this suggests most of the ideas and thought process behind the writing isn't your own either. It may not even demonstrate that you understand the content that you've quoted. So if you claim credit for material that is mostly copied from someone else, it can at least seem lazy.

  • However, as there may be only so many ways to well and concisely transport the respective meaning, I don't see anything wrong with saying We cannot express this better than Juntao [1]: "...". Lazyness impression IMHO is somewhat secondary here. It is a bigger consideration in theses, but in general a lack of understanding is in my experience not bound to whether the source is paraphrased or copied. I.e., I've seen a number of indirect/paraphrased quotes and citations that I consider show a distinct lack of understanding. – cbeleites supports Monica Feb 13 at 11:10
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But why is plagiarising words and paragraphs considered a big deal?

I am a scholar who writes not because a university says I must to advance, but because I enjoy writing for its own sake. So much so that I consider myself above all else a writer. So when my words are plagiarized - and it's happened more than once - it feels tantamount to someone breaking into my house and stealing a prized possession - something deeply personal. When I write, I don't merely slap words on a page, but I revise them time and time again, perhaps 15 or 20 times or more before I have molded the text into a form I like, and for which I feel pride of craftsmanship. You say "It's not like we are writing poems here." Perhaps in your field that is true (I don't know), but it's not the case in mine. I am not literally writing poetry, but what I write has a certain lyricism that is art. (Whether or not it's good art is for others to decide.) This might sound maudlin, but it's nonetheless how I and others no doubt feel, and may help you to understand why some, like me, consider plagiarism a big deal.

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    Agreed. I'm not sure what field you're in, but even in "dry" scientific fields making complex ideas understandable is an art. Unlike more conventional art, where the goal is to be emotionally evocative, the goal of scientific writing is to be both clear and precise, which is an exceeding difficult balance to strike. – WaterMolecule Feb 9 at 22:37
  • @WaterMolecule I understand: I once heard a humanities student argue aesthetics with a math major. The humanities student claimed there was no beauty in math as there is in, say, poetry or a well-written line of text. The math student countered by asserting he saw beauty in certain formulas. Checkmate. – Grinnell Feb 14 at 2:16
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If you want to use Juntao's exact words, put quotation marks around them and cite the exact source (next to the quotation, not a couple of sentences later). Otherwise, "[y]ou are stealing the hard work of others and misleading your peers by pretending it is your original work" [Shi Sen, this question, but in a different context]. You may not realize it, but Juntao might have put quite a lot of work into this passage, not only looking up the relevant background information but also making expository decisions like choosing to mention "certain assumptions", giving their general character, but not stating them explicitly. Juntao deserves explicit credit for that work, not just a generic citation for a "complete summary".

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    +1 for Juntao might have put quite a lot of work into this passage [such as] making expository decisions like choosing to mention "certain assumptions" – Dave L Renfro Feb 10 at 22:34
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Coming up with the right words to express an idea is also work that authors deserve credit for.

However, the reason why copying words is such a disproportionately “big deal” is that copying words is common, easy to detect, and hard to deny.

It’s common because it is the result of laziness. There is software available to detect copying automatically. And, once the copied passages and their source are identified, there is irrefutable evidence.

This results in a lot of people being punished for copying words and most people are very careful to avoid doing this. That makes it a big deal.

Of course, ease of enforcement is not a good reason for something being a big deal. But, unfortunately, that is the reality of the world.

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    This is the best answer. As an example's - Zimbardo's famous prison experiment has been teared into shreds in recent years and there is a strong likelihood that he faked the whole thing. But its not irrefutable, so Zimbardo can keep going on talkshows and denying everything. But outright copying something is impossible to disprove, so its easy to call out people on it. – JonathanReez Supports Monica Feb 7 at 23:43
  • In some cases, if one were to offer a dozen people an awkward paraphrase of a sentence and ask them if they can write it more clearly, one might find that all twelve write the exact same sentence as the original author, even though it would be impossible for them to plagiarize something they'd never seen. The fact that words match precisely is hardly proof of anything absent evidence that someone trying to express the same ideas as the original would be unlikely to match it by coincidence. – supercat Feb 11 at 16:19
  • @supercat The probability of coincidence rapidly declines the longer the copied text is. – Thomas supports Monica Feb 11 at 18:38
  • @Thomas: That is generally true, but in cases where one is describing things using standardized terminology and phraseology, even a fairly long piece of text might be the standard way of expressing the concepts involved What matters is not the length of the text, but the probability of coincidence. – supercat Feb 11 at 18:53
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The problem is that the goal of science has slightly shifted from generating knowledge to generating papers over the last few decades (publish or perish). While these two goals are not mutually exclusive and the former implies the later (the reverse sadly isn't true), generating papers has a lot to do with writing. Hence, people get mad if they see someone copying their written words because writing has become an (if not the) essential part of their work. Take it as one of the many expressions of the current crisis in academic research.

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    Not all academia is science. Not all research is science. Plagiarism in disciplines that involve greater communication, synthesis or interpretation is much more of an intrinsic problem/offence and not just something that annoys authors. – Yemon Choi Feb 8 at 13:15
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    @YemonChoi: That's why I talk about science first and mention academic research at the end ... – image Feb 8 at 19:53
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I'm not sure the other answers address your question directly: why is it important to cite and give credit to the original source of words rather than just copy them into our own writings?

  1. Putting ideas into words is very hard work and requires deep understanding. Contrary to what you've written, the wording also matters a lot: the whole point is to communicate the ideas! So originators of wording deserve credit also.

  2. The normal required/accepted practice is that the author does not plagiarize, i.e. all words have been written by the author except where quoted and sourced. Given this, plagiarism is misleading or dishonest to the reader who assumes words are original. (This wouldn't apply if it were normal to plagiarize, but it isn't.)

  3. It is very useful to the research community to have this norm of "no plagiarism" because it is easier to evaluate a paper and its contributions, for reasons that many others have been posting.

  4. In cultures such as the USA where many of the cultural norms of research are set, plagiarism of words is viewed as ethically wrong (presumably for reasons related to the above). So it is a bad idea to plagiarize when writing for people who feel that way even if they had no rational reasoning.

2

Plagiarism aside, we expect authors to write background sections in their own words because they are supposed to know the background information. If you copy and paste someone else's paragraph, it comes across like you might not have bothered to verify the information in it. Ditto if you start with someone else's paragraph and fiddle with it until it looks original.

  • Agreed, but sometimes there is a 'natural' way to state or introduce something. i.e. your comment is about the process, not the result. – drjpizzle Feb 11 at 13:41
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This article might help. The gist of it is that getting 'noted and quoted' is big deal in academia.

While there is some wiggle room of distinguishing "important contributions" from "used two words in the same order" and everything in between its hard to summarise this in a number, so most of the time it gets dropped.

The result of this is anything that makes a difference between getting a citation or not is a big deal (even if it contributes very little). Add to this the complexity of what makes a useful citation and it becomes politically costly and often untenable to sort out the nuances. It's not an ideal situation1 but it's really not that bad and it has upsides (see other answers).


1 I once found myself in the situation that opening few lines of an introduction I wrote for a paper turned out to be similar another recent publication. It was analogous to your example (stating widely know results of the field) and really there are only so many sane ways of saying it. It wasn't a huge problem but I felt, as you seem to, that it was a waste of effort to sort. Perhaps ironically part of the problem was I didn't want to change to using their version verbatim an cite it. One of the differences I didn't like was the attribution of the actual work was missing in the other paper (as the results where old/obvious).

0

I feel like it is pertinent to point out that, in most cases, scientific publications are meant to build on existing work. Plagiarising words and sentences verbatim, without being able to bring an original spin is simply not publication ready.

Essentially if it is a very basic tenet of your field then you will never need to mention it, you may simply cite a standard book and move ahead to present your work. There are word and page limits as well.

I believe this question arises mostly while writing reports and other "unoriginal" documents.

If you are aso student then, think of this as a learning experience, not a broken part of academia.

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