Plagiarism refers to the use of another's ideas, information, language, or writing, when done without proper acknowledgment of the original source. Essential to an act of plagiarism is an element of dishonesty in attempting to pass off the plagiarised work as original. Plagiarism is not necessarily the same as copyright infringement, which occurs when one violates copyright law. Like most terms from the area of intellectual property, plagiarism is a concept of the modern age and not really applicable to medieval or ancient works.



There is some difference of opinion over how much credit must be given when preparing a newspaper article or historical account. Generally, reference is made to original source material as much as possible, and writers avoid taking credit for others' work.

The use of mere facts, rather than works of creative expression, does not constitute plagiarism. For the latter, the issue of public domain works versus copyrighted works is irrelevant to the concept of plagiarism. For instance, it is legal for a student to copy several paragraphs (or even pages) of text from a public domain book, such as Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and then directly add these quotations to his or her own paper. However if these quotations were not clearly identified as to his or her source, then the student would be guilty of plagiarism, using another writer's work as if it were his or her own. High schools, colleges and universities are especially sensitive to plagiarism, and as a result, they have academic codes of ethics (honor codes) which prohibit plagiarism in all its forms.

Similarly, it is considered plagiarism to take the specifics of someone else's novel idea, and then present it as one's own work. This type of plagiarism frequently occurs in high schools, colleges and universities, when, for example, students use the analyses in "CliffsNotes" and falsely present them as being their own original analysis. A small market has emerged of web sites offering essays and papers for sale to students, while a counter-industry has developed of companies offering services for instructors to compare a student's papers to a database of sources and search for potential plagiarism.

Moreover, just as there can be plagiarism without lawbreaking, it's possible to violate copyright law without plagiarizing. For example, one could distribute the full text of a current bestseller on the Internet while giving clear credit for it to the original author, financially damaging the author and publisher. In this respect, the mere fact that a piece of text is not plagiarized may not suffice to justify its use.

According to some academic ethics codes and criminal laws, a complaint of plagiarism may be initiated or proven by any person. The person originating the complaint need not be the owner of the plagiarized content, nor need there be any active or passive communication from a content owner directing that any investigation or discipline process be initiated in response to the plagiarism.

It is not plagiarism when two (or more) people independently come up with the same idea or analysis.

There is also accidental plagiarism. One case involved a boy whose mother had repeatedly read to him a story as a very small child. Later in life he was writing a story for an assignment, and a story 'came to him', but the story turned out to be exactly that which his mother had read to him as a small child, though he had no recollection of her reading it to him.

According to Diana Hacker (, the citation criteria as specified by the MLA ( (Modern Language Association) (115), APA ( (American Psychological Association) (157-158), Chicago-Style ( (186), and others (228-230): "Three different acts are considered plagiarism: (1) failing to cite quotations and borrowed ideas, (2) failing to enclose borrowed language in quotation marks, and (3) failing to put summaries and paraphrases in your own words." A Pocket Style Manual (, 4h ed., 2004 Bedford/St. Martin's

Famous examples of plagiarism

  • Helen Keller was accused of plagiarism as a young girl for a school composition. Mortified, she determined to have all future compositions screened by her friends before submission.
  • According to a Boston University investigation into academic misconduct, Martin Luther King plagiarized approximately one third of his doctoral thesis. He also appropriated others' text, without credit, for his famous speeches, including "I Have A Dream".
  • George Harrison was successfully sued for plagiarizing (though perhaps unconsciously) the Chiffons' "He's So Fine" for the melody of his own "My Sweet Lord". [1] (
George later wrote a bitter-lyric song on the subject. Ironically, he also "plagiarized" himself at least once, as the introductory chord for The Beatles' I'm Lookng Through You is nearly identical to the introductory chord from End of the Line by his group The Traveling Wilburies.
  • Senator Joseph Biden was forced to withdraw from the 1988 Democratic Presidential nominations when it was revealed that he had failed a course in law school due to plagiarism. It was also shown that he had copied several campaign speeches, notably those of British Labour leader Neil Kinnock and Senator Robert F. Kennedy [2] (
  • Popular historian Stephen Ambrose has been criticized for incorporating passages from the works of other authors into many of his books.
  • Psychology professor Ren Diekstra, also well-known as author of popular books, left Leiden University in 1997 after accusations of plagiarism. Proceedings continued as of 2003, with Diekstra contesting a report about him on this matter.
  • Alex Haley was permitted to settle out-of-court for $650,000, having admitted that he copied large passages of his novel Roots from The African by Harold Courlander.
  • Eres tú, Spanish song at the Eurovision Song Contest 1973 was a plagiarism of Slovenian (then Yugoslav) song from ESC 1966 (Berta Ambrož: Brez Besed) but due to political reasons (Cold War) it wasn't disqualified.
  • Jayson Blair, then a reporter for the New York Times, plagiarized many articles and faked quotes in high-profile stories, including the Jessica Lynch and Beltway sniper attacks cases. He and several high-ranking editors from the Times resigned in June 2003.
  • In 2003, the United Kingdom Government was accused [3] ( of copying some text from the work of a post-graduate student for its security dossier on Iraq, dubbed by the media the 'dodgy dossier'.
  • Though apparently never challenged in court, the first two lines of the famous Popeye theme song are nearly identical to the first two lines of the "Pirate King" song in Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta, The Pirates of Penzance.

Plagiarism and the Internet

The widespread use of the Internet has increased the incidence of plagiarism. Students are able to use search engines to locate information on a wide range of topics. Once located, this information can be cut-and-pasted into their own documents with minimal effort. The size of the Internet makes it difficult for teachers to trace the source of plagiarised material.

There are also websites which provide complete essays for students to download. These websites provide a database of subject-specific topics; some provide custom-made essays on any topic (for a fee). Some of the largest fee-based term paper sites are: Go2Essay (, Fast Papers (, AcaDemon (, Custom Research Papers (, EssayToday (, Essay Town ( and Research Assistance (

The Internet can also be used to combat plagiarism. Teachers can use search engines to search for parts of suspicious essays. Using search engines to check papers for plagiarism, however, is neither practical nor effective since teachers lack the time necessary to check each paper by hand using an online search engine. For this reason, many teachers have turned to plagiarism prevention services like Turnitin that automate the search process and check essays for plagiarised material by comparing each paper against millions of online sources. The techniques used in such engines are often based on variants of the Rabin-Karp string search algorithm. Despite these counteractions, some empirical evidence suggests that the overall effect of the Internet is to increase plagiarism.

Old maxim

It is sometimes humorously said that "Copying from one source is plagiarism, copying from several sources is research". Of course, this is not literally true, because all good researchers do cite their sources. Regardless, the old maxim/joke is part of this self-defining example of this topic, having been cribbed from Tom Lehrer's 1953 song Lobachevsky:

Let no one else's work evade your eyes!
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes!
So don't shade your eyes
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize!
Only be sure always to call it, please, "research"!

See also

Internet links

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