Are citation mistakes and mistakes in paraphrasing considered plagiarism?

I read opposite opinions on if this could be considered plagiarism or it is simply something else.

  • What do you mean by "citation mistakes" or "mistakes in paraphrasing"?
    – Bryan Krause
    Nov 28, 2022 at 17:58
  • 1
    considered by whom? to me they would be simple sign of being extremely sloppy ==> another category than plagiarism, but similarly negatively charged.
    – EarlGrey
    Nov 28, 2022 at 17:58
  • 4
    I don't understand what "miss the point while paraphrasing" means relating to a citation mistake or plagiarism. Do you mean that some paper by Kittey et al says "Lions are cats" and you write in your paper "Zebras are cats (Kittey et al)"? How would you possibly relate that to plagiarism? Do you think it's only bad to do this if you can label it "plagiarism"?
    – Bryan Krause
    Nov 28, 2022 at 18:13
  • 5
    "Proved the significance"? What does that even mean? Plagiarism is "the fraudulent representation of another person's language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions as one's own original work" (from Wikipedia, emphasis mine) - how does what you're asking about have anything to do with plagiarism at all? What's the purpose of asking this question?
    – Bryan Krause
    Nov 28, 2022 at 18:23
  • 2
    Why do you want to know? Nov 28, 2022 at 19:09

2 Answers 2


This is a very clear-cut case.

Taking someone else's work and presenting it as your own is plagiarism, full stop. No amount of paraphrasing could ever save that, and teaching the connection between paraphrasing and plagiarism is quite terrible, honestly. These are two separate things entirely - one is proper credit attribution and another is an ability to synthesize and interpret information from different sources.

Misrepresenting others' work is also bad, of course, but it is yet another topic. Going by the example by Bryan Krause in the comments:

Kittey et al says "Lions are cats"

  • Proper representation: "Lions are cats (Kittey et al)".
  • Proper representation with paraphrasing: "Lions are large cats of the genus Panthera (Kittey et al, wiki)".
  • Plagiarism, naïve: "Lions are cats" (no attribution).
  • Misrepresentation, benign: "Lionesses are cats (Kittey et al)" (may come from misunderstanding, errors in translation etc.).
  • Misrepresentation, severe: "Zebras are cats (Kittey et al)" (Kittey et al would likely be offended at the very suggestion they have ever stated that nonsense).
  • Plagiarism and misrepresentation combined: "Lions are cats of the species Panthera" (no attribution).

Only two of the above are acceptable. If the last one could be traced to its origin with a high degree of certainty, this is a pretty serious offense of trying to steal others' intellectual work and cover the tracks. There is also being too sloppy to do so convincingly, probably for the better.

If anyone makes mistakes in citations out of the desire to paraphrase in order to avoid plagiarism, they need to go way back and understand what plagiarism is. And also figure out why are they even paraphrasing in the first place.


An action needs to have an element of will for it in order to constitute plagiarism. A honest mistake

  • "cats are lions" (Kittey et al.)

is not plagiarism, nor is an accidental citation error

  • "Lions are cats" [5] -- when it should be [4].

They still reflect negatively on the writer and they run the risk of being taken for plagiarism as many engaged in plagiarism talk excuse their bad action by a "honest mistake".

There has been at least one high profile case where an academic committee decided that an action was not plagiarism because the idea of someone else made it through iterative versions of lecture notes through years of teaching, evolving, and finally being made part of a text book. Somewhere along this line, the author forgot that it was not his work only. That is an exception, but shows that in practice, plagiarism is usually not so well defined.

Another source of confusion is the rediscovery of certain facts. It is quite common in the Engineering field or in Mathematics to rediscover the same fact. Some well-known theorems suddenly get different names because of this.

  • This is a much better, and more nuanced, answer than the accepted one. Plagiarism itself requires intention, though that may be difficult or a reader to judge. Careless scholarship is an entirely different issue.
    – Buffy
    Nov 28, 2022 at 20:35
  • @Buffy Indeed, this is something I have struggled with conveying with a short example. Thomas gives a good one here. If I get inspired by Kittey et al and write "Zebras are cats", introducing substantial changes, it becomes an original research idea at some point. Mens rea is not just unprovable in this case, I may well believe I am conducting original research (although even if I grew to believe Kittey et al have basically nothing to do with the result by then, I still should be providing supporting evidence and appropriate credit). Maybe this line of thinking is what traps people.
    – Lodinn
    Nov 29, 2022 at 2:52
  • Thank you for answers. So, bottom line is that these mistakes aren't plagiarism even though they are serious?
    – User857965
    Dec 3, 2022 at 15:42
  • Exactly. If done with sufficient frequency, the work has become so poorly done that a degree based on it could be revoked. Dec 3, 2022 at 17:13

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