Let’s Talk about Plagiarism

Wendy Laura BelcherWendy Laura Belcher is associate professor of African literature in Princeton University’s departments of Comparative Literature and African American Studies. She worked as a freelance copyeditor for many years, then served for eleven years as the managing editor of a peer-reviewed journal in ethnic studies at UCLA, and has personally taught hundreds of graduate students and faculty about writing for publication. She is the author of Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, which came out in its second edition this month.

In this excerpt from her new book, Wendy shares advice on how to build good citation habits and how to avoid plagiarism.

Avoiding Improper Borrowing

Many of us would benefit from frank conversations with other scholars about improper borrowing, otherwise known as plagiarism, but the topic is so hot that most professors avoid discussing it, except in warnings to their undergraduates. Unfortunately, however, the advice we give to undergraduates isn’t enough to guide scholars embarking on publication. Even more unfortunately, most scholars think, “I’m a good person; I couldn’t possibly be committing a sin as bad as plagiarism.” Therefore, I’m going to say something aggressive to you: if you have only heard about plagiarism and never studied what plagiarism is in scholarship, you’re a plagiarist. That is, I guarantee that you’re making the mistakes in your writing that constitute plagiarism. I’ll explain in a moment.

Plagiarizing is no longer a lottery in which it’s unlikely that your name will ever be picked.

If you refuse to read the rest of this section, just read this paragraph. You should not plagiarize for five reasons. First, we’re now living in a brave new world where advances in technology are exposing authors past and present for their borrowing of others’ work (Citron and Ginsparg 2015; Kolowich 2016; Gehrke et al. 2006; Watson 2016). Plagiarizing is no longer a lottery in which it’s unlikely that your name will ever be picked. It’s now an absolute that a plagiarized article will be caught—maybe not this year, maybe not next year, but some year it will happen. Don’t do something today that may be caught in five years and ruin your reputation with the mistake of a younger self. Second, many journals now run all submissions through plagiarism-detection software like iThenticate or CrossCheck. If they find “overlap” with another author’s work, they will send your article to that author, with your name revealed. And the journal editors have a scorched-earth policy: they’ll make a point of contacting everyone possible about your violation, including your advisors, chair, department, and university. Third, representing others’ work as your own is morally wrong. It’s theft. Fourth, research shows that articles filled with borrowing are less likely to be frequently cited (Citron and Ginsparg 2015). Fifth, plagiarism will cost you everything. Someone I know recently lost the opportunity to file his dissertation, earn a PhD, go on a fellowship, and ever obtain an academic job, all because of the kind of plagiarism many don’t know they’re doing.

If you think that you’ll be able to defend your borrowing practices, be warned that editors and deans aren’t impressed with the following defenses: “I have an excellent memory; I had no idea that I was repeating that work verbatim”; “I feel so bad; I’m such a sloppy note-taker!”; “The pastiche approach is an acceptable postmodern methodology”; “I had such a heavy workload that it was justified”; or “In my culture, this is accepted practice.” Authorities have heard all the excuses before—it seems that, perhaps unsurprisingly, excuses for plagiarism are themselves plagiarized.

Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, second editionWhat Is Improper Borrowing?

Part of the reason that plagiarism persists is that scholars’ understandings of what constitutes “really bad plagiarism” differ. No scholars anywhere think that taking another scholar’s entire article, word for word, and publishing it as their own original work is right. Everyone agrees that such a practice is theft. Where things get murkier is with any type of borrowing less egregious than that. For some, cobbling others’ writing into a whole piece that reads coherently feels so satisfying, even fun, that it doesn’t feel like stealing—it feels like taming chaos. For others, cultural norms of writing are quite different (Ehrich et al. 2016; Doss et al. 2016). Borrowing is perceived differently in educational systems that focus on memorizing and imitating classics (Hu and Lei 2012), perceive texts as belonging to the community, not the individual (Mundava and Chaudhuri 2007), or view articles as repositories for collected knowledge, not for constructing knowledge (Hayes and Introna 2005). In other words, it’s not that some cultures approve of stealing; it’s that views of what constitutes stealing vary. As a result, a study about overlap in the arXiv repository found that authors from certain countries outside the Americas and Europe are about twice as likely to reuse text as authors from the United States and the United Kingdom are (Citron and Ginsparg 2015). Such rates of reuse don’t mean that people from these countries are lacking in moral fiber; they mean that norms of reuse vary.

Even those who have attended US schools their entire life can have different views of what constitutes plagiarism. I often think that undergraduates perceive our forbidding plagiarism as akin to our forbidding cell phone use in class—both are things professors don’t want you to do, but everyone does anyway. Undergraduates don’t understand that professors perceive a massive difference between cell phone use in class and plagiarizing—the first is breaking a rule, the second is criminal theft.

If you’re a conscientious scholar, all these warnings will make you anxious. They make me anxious! But honestly, such anxiety isn’t helpful. Still, you may wonder, are you unknowingly committing some academic sin? It’s possible. Let’s turn to a gray area rarely covered in undergraduate courses.

What Is Paraphrase Plagiarism?

Some types of paraphrasing are plagiarism as well—slightly or even heavily varying sentences or paragraphs even when the source is cited. If your wording is too close to the author’s, it may be problematic despite the citation. This issue of paraphrase plagiarism is covered in the excellent undergraduate text The Craft of Research (Booth et al. 2016), now in its fourth edition, which is a wonderful resource for conducting research and drafting papers. The authors reproduce a paragraph verbatim and then show various examples of paraphrasing it that are questionable. Here are the examples, themselves taken verbatim from the first edition of The Craft of Research (1995). To indicate the problem more clearly, I have added underscore for unvaried words that appear in the same order in the original version, and underdots for words that have been slightly changed.

Original paragraph

Plagiarized version

Borderline plagiarized version

Correctly summarized version

When I present this example in workshops, half the audience exclaims in consternation, “Oh, my God, I’ve plagiarized!” Although it’s a common practice to do what’s been done in the plagiarized and borderline plagiarized versions above—take a couple sentences from someone else’s work, then cut them a bit, vary a few of the words so there’s no need for quotation marks, and then cite the original—it’s plagiarism.

Why? you may ask. What’s the problem if the source is cited? First, the way that the plagiarized and borderline plagiarized paragraphs put the citation at the end suggests that the ideas in only the last sentence are from another source, not the ideas of the entire paragraph. Second, the wording in the first two versions is just too close. That is, it’s not just ideas that are the intellectual property of authors but their wording.

Now, to be honest, if you improperly paraphrase one paragraph from one source in one article, no one will chase you out of the profession. However, if you do this repeatedly in one article for paragraphs from the same source or for many paragraphs from multiple sources, you’re plagiarizing and could draw an editor’s ire. (By the way, software developers are working hard to come up with antiplagiarism software that will be good at catching this type of plagiarism, so don’t think that paraphrasing will avoid detection.)

So let’s get to the practical details of avoiding plagiarism. What exactly should you do to avoid getting in trouble with editors and other authors?

Good Citation Habits

The best way to ensure that you cite sources accurately, completely, and fairly is to maintain good research and writing habits.

Always revise. Any author carefully going over every sentence in their piece—seeking for ways to improve diction, sentence structure, clarity, and flow—is unlikely to have chunks of others’ work remaining in it. Even if a paragraph accidentally entered the article wholesale from somewhere else, its totality won’t survive a true revision process. Whenever I see cases of authors getting in trouble for publishing an article that includes word-for-word paragraphs from others’ work, I always find it striking, because they clearly aren’t revising their work. What kind of author would leave any paragraphs untouched?! The problem with such an author is deeper than merely borrowing.

Review others’ work briefly rather than at length. You need to review the previous literature quickly and then move on firmly to your own ideas. If you’re paraphrasing other sources heavily and repeatedly throughout your research article or summarizing entire articles or books in lengthy sections, your problem is not just possibly plagiarizing—it’s being too derivative in a larger sense.

Focus on being persuasive rather than brilliant. Most of us know that we’re not the smartest scholar out there—whether in our discipline or in our field. Fortunately, the point of article writing is not to prove that you’re brilliant; it’s to persuade your readers to believe something. If you focus on persuasion, the temptation to borrow someone else’s smartness diminishes. Weirdly, narcissism (the obsessive desire to prove one’s worth) is the very thing that leads people to be less themselves and more a borrowed version of others’ selves. If you get over yourself, you won’t plagiarize.

Don’t worry about your English. Research suggests that nonnative speakers of English are more likely to reuse others’ texts, because they’re anxious about their English (Devlin and Gray 2007, 188). They insert others’ writing into their articles because they think that others write better in English. But perfect English is not the reason that journal articles get published—they get published because they have a strong argument, robust evidence, and a clear structure, the very qualities this workbook helps you learn. If English is your second language, focus on argument, evidence, and structure, not phrasing, and your article will do fine.

Use an RMS program. Those who use a reference-management software (RMS) program are less likely to plagiarize. Without such programs, some authors fall into paraphrase plagiarism because they fail to note the source of a text and then try to change the wording enough so they don’t feel the need to cite the source. It’s shoddy methods, not immoral ones, causing the problem here. And then, when such authors get caught they protest, because they know their own heart and their purpose wasn’t to steal. As some scholars put it, “There is a fine line between plagiarism and poor academic practice” (Burkill and Abbey 2004, 440). Using an RMS program is the best way to ensure true accuracy of citations across texts and time.

Develop systematic notes. Take notes that make absolutely clear the distinction between your comments on the text and your direct quotations from or paraphrases of the text. If words in your notes are a direct quote, always place them inside quotation marks. If they’re a paraphrase, add a remark after the words stating that this is the case (e.g., “my paraphrase”). If they represent your own thoughts or commentary, place them inside brackets (or use all capitals, yellow highlight, or red font). Whatever you do, develop a method so that you’ll know tomorrow or in ten years exactly what you copied directly from the text, what you paraphrased, and what your own commentary is.

Paraphrase without looking at the source. When reading something useful in another text, try setting that text down and typing what you remember it to have said. Taking notes from memory can be a good way to avoid putting things exactly as the original did. If you have an excellent memory, this technique may not work—be sure to check your notes against the original and confirm that your wording isn’t too close.

Check your coauthors’ work. Some coauthors have been surprised to learn that an article to which they contributed, but did not actually write out, contained plagiarized portions (Watson 2016). Be sure that your coauthors are also aware of the perils of lifting material from others’ work. In addition, if you don’t know them well, read their material carefully for variations in style or diction that might signal borrowing.

Check your translators’ work. Some authors have also been surprised to discover that after commissioning a translation of their article (or parts of some source text), the translator plagiarized the translation, borrowing from previous publications (Watson 2016). Be sure that your translator is mindful of improper borrowing, and read the translation carefully for variations in style or diction that might signal that this has occurred.

Don’t self-plagiarize. Rules of thumb vary, but using without attribution in a new article the exact phrases and sentences from one of your published articles won’t endear you to editors. You can sometimes repeat three to four paragraphs verbatim, but only if you clearly state that you’ve done so in the text or in the notes. Even then, such paragraphs must be from background, context, or methods sections of an article, as these don’t contain the argument or evidence. However, if you don’t use the exact same sentences or paragraphs from your earlier article, you can write an article that has the same argument but different evidence (or the same evidence but a new argument) as your previously published work. If you’re uncertain, write a brief email to get the opinion of the journal editor, providing a brief description of your article and its similarities to previous work.

Check that you correctly copied your quotations. If you make mistakes in citing and quoting others’ work, that’s a form of plagiarism. If you misspell an author’s name or give a wrong publication date, scholars may not be able to find that work and algorithms may not count citations, affecting their impact factor. Research shows that many authors make mistakes such as these (Tfelt-Hansen 2015; Jergas and Baethge 2015). In some cases, “unreliable, inapplicable or misquoted citations” may even lead to “dangerous consequences” in the real world (Smith and Banks 2016, 408).


Booth, Wayne C., Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, Joseph Bizup, and William T. FitzGerald. 2016. The Craft of Research. 4th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (1st ed. published in 1995.)

Burkill, Sue, and Caroline Abbey. 2004. “Avoiding Plagiarism.” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 28 (3): 439–46.

Citron, Daniel T., and Paul Ginsparg. 2015. “Patterns of Text Reuse in a Scientific Corpus.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112 (1): 25–30.

Devlin, Marcia, and Kathleen Gray. 2007. “In Their Own Words: A Qualitative Study of the Reasons Australian University Students Plagiarize.” Higher Education Research and Development 26 (2): 181–98.

Doss, Daniel Adrian, Russ Henley, Balakrishna Gokaraju, David McElreath, Hilliard Lackey, Qiuqi Hong, and Lauren Miller. 2016. “Assessing Domestic vs. International Student Perceptions and Attitudes of Plagiarism.” Journal of International Students 6 (2): 542.

Ehrich, John, Steven J. Howard, Congjun Mu, and Sahar Bokosmaty. 2016. “A Comparison of Chinese and Australian University Students’ Attitudes towards Plagiarism.” Studies in Higher Education 41 (2): 231–46.

Gehrke, Johannes, Daria Sorokina, Paul Ginsparg, and Simeon Warner. 2006. “Plagiarism Detection in arXiv.” Submitted February 1, 2007. https://arxiv.org/abs/cs/0702012.

Hayes, Niall, and Lucas Introna. 2005. “Systems for the Production of Plagiarists? The Implications Arising from the Use of Plagiarism Detection Systems in UK Universities for Asian Learners.” Journal of Academic Ethics 3 (1): 55–73.

Hu, Guangwei, and Jun Lei. 2012. “Investigating Chinese University Students’ Knowledge of and Attitudes toward Plagiarism from an Integrated Perspective.” Language Learning 62 (3): 813–50.

Jergas, Hannah, and Christopher Baethge. 2015. “Quotation Accuracy in Medical Journal Articles—a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” PeerJ 3:e1364.

Kolowich, Steve. 2016. “Brandon Stell Is the Vigilante of Scientific Publishing.” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 10, 2016. http://chronicle.com/article/Brandon-Stell-Is-the-Vigilante/236007.

Mejias, Ulises A. 2005. “Social Literacies: Some Observations about Writing and Wikis.” Ulises A. Mejias Blog. March 4, 2005. https://blog.ulisesmejias.com/tag/wikis/.

Mundava, Maud, and Jayati Chaudhuri. 2007. “Understanding Plagiarism: The Role of Librarians at the University of Tennessee in Assisting Students to Practice Fair Use of Information.” College and Research Libraries News 68 (3): 170–73.

Smith, Helen M., and Peter B. Banks. 2016. “How Dangerous Conservation Ideas Can Develop through Citation Errors.” Australian Zoologist 38 (3): 408–13.

Tfelt-Hansen, Peer. 2015. “The Qualitative Problem of Major Quotation Errors, as Illustrated by 10 Different Examples in the Headache Literature.” Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain 55 (3): 419–26.

Thomason, Andy. 2014. “Professor Plagiarized ‘Plagiarism’ Definition in Textbook, Co-author Says.” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 15, 2014. https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/professor-plagiarized-plagiarism-definition-in-textbook-co-author-says/84063.

Watson, Roger. 2016. “The Value of Trusting No One and Using Similarity Checkers.” Nurse Author and Editor 26 (2): 3.

Reprinted from Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), pp. 162–67. Edited for length.

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