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Posted on 11.03.2016

Thou Shalt Not Steal: Understanding Plagiarism

Do you understand what constitutes plagiarism? A plagiarism incident earlier this year sparked a lot of public and media discussion on the topic. And from statements many people made at the time, it was clear they sure didn’t understand it.

What is plagiarism? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to plagiarize is “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own” or to “use (another's production) without crediting the source.”[i] 

This simply means you can’t steal the ideas or words of someone else and pass them off as your own. And when you do choose to use the ideas and words of another, you are obligated to credit the original source.

Sometimes people make excuses by saying things like “those are just common words.” But that is not an excuse for plagiarism if you’ve picked them up from another’s work and used them as if they’re yours. Plagiarism is fraud.

Sometimes plagiarism does happen unintentionally. A recent New York Times article by Steph Yin, entitled “The Accidental Plagiarist in All of Us,” explores something called cryptomnesia, which happens “when we fail to register the source of information.”[ii]

A great resource for understanding plagiarism is plagiarism.org, which in the interest of disseminating its information as widely as possible, grants all reprint and usage requests without the need to obtain any further permission as long as the URL of the original article or information is cited.[iii] Thanks, plagiarism.org!

The site addresses one of the most fundamental questions surrounding plagiarism, i.e., “…can words and ideas really be stolen?” The answer is: yes. “The expression of original ideas is considered intellectual property and is protected by copyright laws, just like original inventions. Almost all forms of expression fall under copyright protection as long as they are recorded in some way.”[iv]

Here are a few examples plagiarism.org notes constitute plagiarism, absent proper citation of the source or receiving the proper permission to use the intellectual property of another – for example, paying the appropriate royalties for use of a copyrighted song before performing it publicly. They include:

  • Changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit
  • Copying media or images from another’s website to paste them into your own work or website
  • Using copyrighted music as part of a video soundtrack

So what’s the consequence for plagiarism? It can range from a failing college grade, to losing a job, to legal action against you or your organization, to public ridicule and the loss of your credibility.

What if you realize you have plagiarized – intentionally or not? You apologize. In writing. Google “plagiarism apology” and you’ll find many examples. Even plagiarism apology letter templates and generators (sad).

You can also find plagiarism checkers online!

There’s no shame in citing your source; in fact, quite the opposite. To do so shows professionalism and respect. And to fail to do so can make you an intentional or unintentional fraud.

Have you experienced plagiarism of your words or ideas? How did you address it? We’d love to hear from you and learn from your experience.


[i] “Plagiarize.” 2015. Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved October 26, 2016, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/plagiarize

[ii] Yin, S. (n.d.). The Accidental Plagiarist in All of Us. New York Times.

[iii] Home. (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2016, from http://www.plagiarism.org/

[iv] “What Is Plagiarism?” Retrieved October 26, 2916, from http://www.plagiarism.org/plagiarism-101/what-is-plagiarism


Dana Coleman is a Vice President at Lovell Communications. Connect with Dana at: Dana@lovell.com




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