I'm dealing with a student essay that references three books in support of a claim. None of the books referenced have authors listed, and, based on the contents of the student's essay, I can't find any information on these books online. I'm fairly certain they don't exist, but I'm not sure what to call this beyond academic dishonesty.

I read this from the Nebraska Methodist College:

Other acts of plagiarism are more limited in scope, but are nonetheless cheating. If you decide to make up a quotation or other material and an associated in-text citation, this is plagiarism. If you change or invent the author of a quotation, an idea, or a statistic to make your paper appear to contain more numerous sources, this is plagiarism.

I've run into a few other university plagiarism guides that mention the citing of fictitious sources as plagiarism, but I'd like to know if this is standard, fair, or legitimate to label this practice plagiarism and not just academic dishonesty.

The conflict is this: the student isn't citing these presumably falsified texts directly, but they are referencing finer plot points and characters in them. That is, they are talking about the fictitious dilemmas of the fictitious characters as a way to support their thesis. To me that's dishonest and shows a lack of integrity. I'm grading students on a rubric that awards points for organization, analytical treatment, and language use. If I treat this as academic dishonesty maybe I knock the person's grade down in the rubric criteria related to analysis, but if I treat it as plagiarism I'd give the student a zero.

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    Have you asked your students to give you the full\proper citation an idea how they accessed the relevant source as you cannot find it?
    – Gerhard
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 20:16
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    Tell your College's Guide-writer that they have made up a fictitious idea and called it Plagiarism. They should cite the appropriate term instead. Award them a zero for the Guide. : ) Maybe the intention is that citing unwritten material is plagiarizing God, because God has Eminent Domain over everything that has not yet occurred.
    – user28174
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 21:36
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    Unfortunately, attaching the "plagiarism" label to things that it doesn't apply to seems all too common. I once took a class in which plagiarism was defined as "appropriating someone else's ideas, even if you weren't aware of doing so." In other words, if someone came up with the idea before you did, and you didn't do enough research to prove otherwise (effectively attempting to prove a negative), then you were guilty of plagiarism. The only way to pass such a class is to ruthlessly quote other people's ideas and cite, which I did, enthusiastically. I got a B in the class.
    – user8762
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 23:12
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    "I don't think thats plagiarism" -Abraham Lincoln
    – PVAL
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 23:51
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    This is not plagiarism because no content or ideas are being copied from some source without attribution. This is best described as fabrication.
    – bwDraco
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 0:01

10 Answers 10


For example, Merriam–Webster defines plagiarism via to plagiarize, which it defines as:

: to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own
: use (another's production) without crediting the source intransitive verb

: to commit literary theft : present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source

This does not include inventing a quotation, which is in fact sort-of the opposite of plagiarism: passing off one’s own idea as somebody else’s. Other dictionaries agree on this and so does my understanding of the word plagiarism.

Moreover, defining plagiarism so broad makes the term rather useless and almost equivalent to the umbrella term academic misconduct. The reason why we have a word for plagiarism is to differentiate a specific kind of misconduct, not a specific severity.

The conflict is this: the student isn't citing these texts directly, but they are referencing finer plot points and characters. To me that's dishonest and shows a lack of integrity. I'm grading students on a rubric that awards points for organization, analytical treatment, and language use. If I treat this as academic dishonesty maybe I knock the person's grade down in the rubric criteria related to analysis, but if I treat it as plagiarism I'd give the student a zero.

I fail to see why you would be more lenient about academic dishonesty than about plagiarism. I don’t fully understand what you mean by “referencing finer plot points and characters”, but I would classify what you are describing as fabricating evidence, which is roughly as grave as plagiarism. I say roughly, because I see no point in ranking the severity of those misconducts in general and the severity distributions of individual instances of those misconducts strongly overlap.

What is important at the end of the day is whether you are reasonably convinced that the student in question did not just work sloppily, but intentionally deceived the reader (i.e., you). The aspect of intention alone suffices for awarding them zero points, in my opinion.

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    @tylerharms Tell them that they negative plagiarized, but that punishments are based on the square of the amplitude. Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 20:34
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    Thanks. The focus on intentional deception is helpful in assessing the mark the student will earn.
    – tylerharms
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 22:49
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    I'd say this is more serious than plagiarism. If somebody plagiarizes, she is repeating something (presumably) correct. Yes, it damages the science, but more or less only (?!) the reputations of the ones being plagiarized. By fabricating evidence (be it cooking experimental results or fabricating references) the result might be taken as confirmed, and as mathematicians say, "from false you can derive anything".
    – vonbrand
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 23:02
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    I don't necessarily think this specific instance is worse than plagiarism, but we have a clearer policy on plagiarism then we do with other types of Academic Dishonesty. Your answer, as I take it, seems to address Deception as--so to speak--the hypernym that includes plagiarism.
    – tylerharms
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 0:20
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    @tylerharms However unclear your school's policy is on academic dishonesty, they cannot make it clearer by misusing perfectly standard words. Plagiarism not a synonym for bad, nor for academic misconduct, nor even for dishonesty. Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 13:36

I kind of like Teddi Fishman's (Chair of ICAI) definition of plagiarism from her paper “We know it when we see it” is not good enough: toward a standard definition of plagiarism that transcends theft, fraud, and copyright:

Plagiarism occurs when someone

  1. uses words, ideas, or work products
  2. attributable to another identifiable person or source
  3. without attributing the work to the source from which it was obtained
  4. in a situation in which there is a legitimate expectation of original authorship
  5. in order to obtain some benefit, credit, or gain which need not be monetary.

I agree with Wrzlprmft: let's not muddy the water and include all sorts of academic misconduct in a definition of plagiarism. Plagiarism is one form of academic misconduct; all forms of academic misconduct should incur a sanction, which will, of course, differ according to the individual circumstances.

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    At least in my experience, plagiarism is always the form of misconduct with the clearest guidelines.
    – tylerharms
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 23:06
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    @tylerharms I think that's because plagiarism is the form of misconduct that is easiest to clearly define... (which of course this example is trying to muddy)
    – Joel
    Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 1:27

Plagiarism refers to a specific kind of dishonesty--in a nutshell, pretending to have written something that was actually written by someone else. Fabricating sources doesn't meet that definition, but it isn't necessarily a less serious offense.

Plagiarism in academia is wrong primarily because it is fundamentally an attempt to gain a grade that wasn't earned. Grades are typically given for a student's writing, and if a student tried to deceives you into believing that a paper is the student's work when it really isn't, then that is a serious offense worthy of a zero.

So what was the effect of the deception in this case? If you were giving grades primarily for doing research, and the student tried to deceive you to into believing that research had been done when in fact it hadn't, then the offense has essentially the same effect as plagiarism, and it merits a similar penalty.

If, on the other hand, the research itself was only a minor factor in the grade, then it might be a lesser offense. I believe that the penalty still needs to be sufficient to deter dishonesty in any form, but you might reasonably decide that reducing the grade to zero is harsher than would be necessary in this case.


In direct answer to the question, as it addresses the definition of plagiarism and consequent marking decisions...

NO, this is definitely not literally plagiarism, because that necessarily involves the non-attribution of real work by others. What you describe is a smokescreen of nonexistent work that a student is using in order to give the impression of having consulted sources. That is certainly academically inappropriate, but it is not plagiarism. It is intellectual fraud. This might constitute an indication that the student concerned in some sense really does understand the idea of analytical practice and structure, but thinks that a cosmetic short-cut is just as good as doing any actual work.

That might in fact mean that the student is essentially promising, but has misunderstood the game. He or she might benefit enormously from discussion as to how one legitimately gains academic credit, and how to direct energies more effectively than inventing sources. In any case, this particular assignment sounds like a Fail.

Your documentation from Nebraska Methodist College uses the term 'plagiarism' with unhelpfully unprofessional latitude. Plagiarism is the act of taking someone else's work and pretending that it is one's own. The etymology derives from the idea of kidnapping. This privileges the idea of theft and subsequent misidentification of intellectual effort, with the underlying concept of credit properly belonging elsewhere. That is not what you are describing here.

What you describe is certainly against the spirit and practice of scholarship, however. In a legal context (in UK terminology; I don't know about Nebraska courts) it would be called 'fabricating evidence', and would lead to a jail term.

This behaviour should be specifically marked-down, and the student should be told why. You say that your criteria include 'organization, analytical treatment, and language use'. If the student's essay is more or less argument-shaped and comprehensible then it should probably score on the first and third of these. Academically, however, the second factor by far is the most important.

Inventing an intellectual landscape is certainly creative (Stanislaw Lem and others have written impressive collections of reviews of nonexistent books, for example, and JRR Tolkien invented an entire world to play-out the development of his invented languages), but it is not scholarship of the sort that your student is being asked to display.

To put it another way... Given the marking criteria that I have used most recently, this essay sounds as if it boils down to personal opinion with no core of analytical substance and no suitable bibliography, with the added pretence of scholarly effort. That might be wonderful fun for a chat over a drink, but it does not attract academic credit.

If the essay is generally well-written, I would give it a high-ish Fail on grounds of technical competence, because a pass of any kind is impossible without real academic engagement and substance. I would point the student towards whatever resources your institution has concerning the construction of valid intellectual material, and make myself available for discussion of effective scholarly practice. I would be very pleased if the student turned up for that, but would also be braced for disappointment: it sounds as if he or she knows exactly what is required, tried to blag it, and will know that he or she has simply been caught out.

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    I like the comparison to fabrication of evidence and the jail sentence. By comparison, regular plagiarism is merely a copyright violation.
    – tripleee
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 14:11
  • Thanks for the advice regarding how to go forward with this. I think my student will probably know that they've erred, but I could understand them having little awareness of the gravity of the error.
    – tylerharms
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 20:08

plagiarism.org says that "giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation" is plagiarism. Claiming that something was written by Einstein when you wrote it yourself is giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation but, to me, it's not helpful to use the term "plagiarism" for this kind of academic dishonesty. Plagiarism, to me and the dictionaries, means specifically passing somebody else's work off as your own, and things get muddy if we start using the same word to mean "all kinds of bad behaviour when writing."

Having said that (and this is why I originally posted a comment rather than an answer), we should be careful to allow the language to evolve. If a large number of people call making up fake quotes plagiarism, then we kind of have to go along with that.

This also leaves the practical problem of what to do about this behaviour, regardless of what we call it. The question specifically mentions grading and the fact that "plagiarism" means the mark must be zero, whereas "academic dishonesty" has more leeway. Now, there are two options. One is to say, "I don't care whether this is technically 'plagiarism' or 'academic dishonesty'. It's so bad that I'm awarding a grade of zero." The second option is to say that it's not so bad that it deserves an automatic zero. However, if you do want to go down that path, you need to find out exactly what your institution's policy is. As we've seen, some institutions do think that faking quotes is plagiarism and, if your institution is one of them, you need to be awarding some zeroes.

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    […] we should be careful to allow the language to evolve. If a large number of people call making up fake quotes plagiarism, then we kind of have to go along with that. – On the other hand, it is also our responsibility as users of a language to not participate in language changes that impede effective communicaton …
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 20:10
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    What's wrong with calling this fabrication of evidence or just fabrication? The problem is that it presents external evidence to seemingly support the authors' point which doesn't exist. Imagine someone planting a faked manuscript in a library and then "discovering" it. It's misleading to call this plagiarism, and it is not even close. It is much closer to falsification of data, so if it is at all lumped together with existing academic offences, why not pick one that's more similar? Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 22:40
  • @CaptainEmacs I completely agree. But the question isn't asking for alternative terms for this behaviour. Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 0:05
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    @DavidRicherby The OP did not formulate a precise question, but a conflict, as far as I see, so I interpreted it as "how to classify this behaviour" and I made a point of it being not "plagiarism", and a very specific type of "academic dishonesty", namely "fabrication". I had the belief that this would address the OPs conflict, but I am happy to find myself corrected. Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 17:02
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    @Wrzlprmft Not only does such language impede effective communication, it forces us to re-examine every prior use of the word in all published works, to determine if it's accurate given the new definition. In technical writing, we can't allow a word, once it's been well defined, to be re-defined, because of that overhead. Instead, we should find a new term that does not carry any such prior expectation. Any code of conduct that punishes plagiarism ought to briefly define the term, so that there be no confusion. Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 18:50

Clearly it's not plagiarism per se, but it is wrong and misleading in a formal essay.

I'm more alarmed that both the Nebraska Methodist College and another school using The Visual Communication Guy's diagram assert such sloppily incorrect definitions of plagiarism. What plagiarism is is such a basic and important piece of information, that it's disturbing to see it mis-defined by schools in their documents where they attempt to explain and assert their policies about it. In holding others to a rule, it seems vital to use language accurately.

I'm adding another answer here because it occurs to me that the specific context (an essay about fiction) seems potentially relevant to the degree of the problem. Certainly for history or science, for example, inventing sources would be completely wrong and a kind of cheating.

But in fiction itself, and in non-academic articles by some fiction writers, sometimes writers have invented authors and books to refer to, not trying to deceive, but to be creative and/or entertaining, or to illustrate an idea or make a joke at the expense of an imaginary author rather than a real one. I can imagine there could be a case (although I expect not the one asked about here) where it might be fair to invent an example for the sake of making a point in an essay about fiction in general. If necessary, one might even write a short story and then refer to that, for the purposes of illustrating something generic that is possible in fiction, rather than the point being that someone specific other than yourself had someplace written some sort of fiction that you want to discuss in an essay. Of course, that's a peculiar case, and one should be clear that's what one is doing, and not just being lazy and foolishly hoping the professor won't check. It's probably a terrible idea and unlikely to fly outside a creative writing class and/or with a very indulgent teacher, but it does seem to me that it would be theoretically possible in an essay about fiction to honestly invent works.


I’m posting an answer to my own question just to describe how we handled this at my school. The situation transpired in a mostly positive way, excepting a few tears. I’ll just describe the steps in brief. Hopefully, this helps someone in a similar pinch.

  1. Before speaking with the student regarding the validity of the sources, I asked my initial question (the question of this post) to my supervisor. They directed me to our department head.

  2. I arranged a meeting with my head to first address our school’s academic-honesty policy. As I expected, our school’s plagiarism policy is fairly detailed and traditional (based on a dictionary definition – Merriam–Webster). It mentioned nothing about fabrication of data as a form of plagiarism. The closest form of plagiarism to our situation was the following:

    The rewriting or re-wording of text or information from documents not originally written by you and turning it in as your own work without proper citation

    We decided that this definition did not fit our needs because there was no “document” that had been re-worded. Our campus also has guidelines on “cheating”, but nothing dealt explicitly with fabrication of data.

    Plagiarism and cheating merit a zero on our campus (as I mentioned in the question), but other types of academic dishonesty referred to in our campus's honor code have no explicit punishment tied to them. They have only the stipulations that students will have their assignment confiscated and be required to meet with a dean or director. Therefore, my director decided that, in the event that the student had fabricated sources, we could not give a zero. Instead, I would give the student a zero in the rubric criterion related to analysis. We decided that this was appropriate because it would guarantee a fail for the assignment, and it would target the specific infraction for what it was: an attempt to dishonestly show analytical skills, as the assignment described them. The decision was also reached that our academic-honesty policy is woefully inadequate as regards fraud and fabrication of information and will need to be revamped.

  3. I met with the student at this point. I asked them to provide a full citation for the sources, at least an author so I could verify the texts. The student, at this point, came clean and explained that they used these fictitious sources knowing they were “not correct” (student’s words). The student did not have a sense of the gravity of the infraction. Without interpreting too much, I would say that the student saw the falsified sources as textual support in the way of saying: “We can see this is valid because, hypothetically speaking, if a person were to...” I explained the importance of an academic reputation – that, at the university level, a person could get themselves black-balled for such behavior. I explained the concept of data falsification and explained the consequences of it in a few different disciplines: science, history, journalism. The student accepted that this was a grave problem in this situation. I took pains to reminded them, though, that in other instances, this type of creativity could be rewarded and celebrated. I then explained how I would demote the student’s grade. While this conversation happened, I had another teacher present, quietly working in the back of the room, as a witness, just in case.

  4. The student had a meeting with their dean after their meeting with me. The dean explained that the incident would go on the student’s record, and it would be considered if further academic infractions were made.

  5. My next step will be to work with this student, encourage their creativity, which they obviously rely on, and help them put this experience behind them.

Ultimately, I learned that most students have a vague notion of the boundaries of academic honesty, and this is something that should be taught to incoming students. Moreover, academic honesty policies must evolve as technology evolves.

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    Therefore, my director decided that, in the event that the student had fabricated sources, we could not give a zero. – Your policies do indeed need some revamping. I suggest to include some general rule that any intentional attempt to deceive the examiners is considered cheating. Actually, I am perplexed that this should be necessary, as deceit is part of the dictionary definition of cheating. (Sidenote: The German word for cheating in an official context when talking about exams even is Täuschungsversuch, which literally translates to attempt to deceive.)
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 22:19

No, it's definitely not a plagiarism! It is a misguide or clear lies - because the source does not exist at all. If the source does exist and it is used but not mentioned as a source - only then it's a plagiarism.


I would not call this plagiarism, because it's not copying or passing someone else's work off as your own. The word fabrication is closer, but does not quite fit either, because that makes one think of fudging experimental data. I think falsification of sources is a good phrase to describe it.

In my opinion it is academic misconduct almost as bad as plagiarism or result fabrication because it leads to the propagation of bogus results just like outright fabrication does. It's much like the Woozle effect, where a work containing a reference to a nonexistent or misinterpreted other work gets cited itself, until the bogus claim becomes "common knowledge" despite being wrong.

I do know of PhD students who, as a joke, might have a reference to a paper by McCartney, Lennon, Harrison, and Starr (1969) in the bibliography without being cited anywhere in the text. I think that kind of silliness is completely harmless.


Plagiarism flowchart

Source: The Visual Communication Guy

According to this chart (I'm not sure how credible it is, but my school uses it), citing a source that does not exist constitutes a Ghost Citation, rated “Very, very [serious]” on the plagiarism scale.

In case you can't see the image, the decision is:

Did you cite a source that doesn't exist or did you make up what the source actually said?

If yes, that constitutes a “Ghost Citation” violation.

TL;DR: Citing a bogus source constitutes a Ghost Citation, about half of the seriousness of full-blown plagiarism (identity theft) on the plagiarism severity scale. So yes, it is plagiarism.

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    Just being as severe as plagiarism doesn’t make something plagiarism. In fact, this diagram seems to conflate plagiarism with honest mistakes (misinterpretation), other misconducts (ghost citations), and plain style questions (giving page numbers when citing) that are clearly distinct from plagiarism.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 8:47
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    Everything from stealing complete papers and down to not writing page numbers in citations is plagiarism? I think whoever made that chart would benefit from a more varied vocabulary. It makes me think of the Smurfs. Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 9:40
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    I disagree with the chart, it is mixing things like fabrication, self plagiarism, sloppy work, bad paraphrasing, formatting, and even honest mistakes, and putting them in the same bag of "plagiarism". And in my opinion, the ranking is wrong: ghost citation is much worse than different levels of self plagiarism.
    – Davidmh
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 9:44
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    I'd consider any fabrication (ghost citation, false experiment data) much more serious than copying (presumably correct) results/conclusions.
    – vonbrand
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 16:20
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    Identity theft is plagiarism? That sounds like exactly the opposite - rather than taking someone's materials and passing it off as your own you're trying to pass off your materials as someone else. Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 19:40

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