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What is plagiarism?

“Plagiarism is the practice of using or copying someone else’s ideas or work and pretending that you thought of it or created it .” (Collins Cobuild English Dictionary for Advanced Learners, 2001)

Have a look at the reference list to see the correct formatting for this citation.

In minor cases, it can be the quotation of a sentence or two, without quotation marks and without a citation (e.g. footnote) to the true author.

In the most serious cases, a significant fraction of the entire work was written by someone else: the plagiarist removed the true author(s) names(s) and substituted the plagiarist's name, perhaps did some re-formatting of the text, then submitted the work for credit in a class (e.g., a report or essay) or as part of the requirements for a degree (e.g., thesis or dissertation).

When using another person's words, to avoid plagiarism one must always do both of the following:

  1. provide a citation in the text, and
  2. either enclose their words inside quotation marks, or put their words in a block of indented, single-spaced text.

Note that the intent of a plagiarist is irrelevant. The act of quoting material without including a citation is sufficient to convict someone of plagiarism.

It is no defence for the plagiarist to say "I forgot." or "It is only a rough draft." or "I did not know it was plagiarism."

Paraphrasing without a citation is plagiarism

At Otago Polytechnic, the definition of plagiarism includes copying ideas without providing a citation to the original source.

Even if you are not using the exact words of someone else, but are rewriting them in your own words, that is, you are paraphrasing, you still need to show the reader that the idea(s) you are using belong to someone else.

Suppose one reads a book by Smith and encounters the short sentence:

If the solution turns pink, it is worthless, and should be discarded.

It is plagiarism to paraphrase this sentence as:

When the liquid becomes light red, it is spoiled, and should be poured down the sink.

Note that most of the words have been changed, yet the sentence – in a very real way – has been copied. Copying, even with "original" alterations, can be copyright infringement.

The proper way to avoid such plagiarism is to cite the source in the text, as in:

Smith [citation] has reported that when the liquid becomes light red, it is spoiled, and should be poured down the sink.

No quotation marks are needed, because these are not Smith's exact words, but only a paraphrase. But a citation to Smith is still required.

Note that the short sentence by Smith is just a terse, contrived example for this essay, not an actual instance from plagiarized text. In most cases of this type of plagiarism, many sentences – probably whole paragraphs – will have been paraphrased.

The above information was adapted from an essay written by Ronald B. Standler in 2000, called “Plagiarism in College in USA”, which is published on the web at I accessed this essay on 12.01.07.

Because there is no specific piece of information on this page that can be referenced as Standlers, it is appropriate to place the citation for this work in the Bibliography. Have a look at the bibliography for this unit to see the correct formatting for this citation.

One of the risks of using the words or ideas of someone else without acknowledging it is that you can be accused of doing it deliberately in order to achieve better grades.


  • Marc Doesburg, Otago Polytechnic, 2007
  • David McQuillan, Otago Polytechnic, 2007