Avoiding plagiarism in the student media


It is an accusation that strikes fear in the hearts of students, academics, journalists, authors and presidential candidates alike. From the day a sixth-grade student is assigned a report on Thomas Jefferson and turns to the Internet, she confronts the same questions faced by the best-selling historian who dares consult secondary sources: how do I use this information without "overusing" it? How much use is too much? What needs to be attributed and what doesn't? Is substantially rewording or paraphrasing a passage sufficient to make it one's own? What constitutes "substantially?" And on and on.

Plagiarism is a scary topic for many because it is a moving topic. There isn't even a simple definition of plagiarism. In fact, there are many definitions. The Associated PressNational Public RadioAmerican Association of University Professors and American Historical Association — all, to name just a few, have their own definition of plagiarism — and none of them are especially simple to apply.

Plagiarism is not a legal term. As noted above, it is a term for academic dishonesty, usually defined by professional or academic bodies. No civil or criminal statutes apply. You won't be tossed in jail or fined by a judge if found guilty of plagiarizing someone else's work. But you might be subject to punishment or censure by a professional association, have your work discredited, and suffer academic consequences.

In addition, journalists have occasionally been fired or suspended by their employers for improperly using another's work. This story in Columbia Journalism Review from 2014 cites several instances and this story details how one newsroom handled it. In recent years, college journalists at Columbia University, Oklahoma State University, Colorado Mesa University and the University of Virginia all have lost their jobs -- and suffered public embarrassment -- after their publications discovered that their stories contained material cut-and-pasted from other published articles.

Let’s take the AHA’s definition, as an example. The American Historical Association defines plagiarism simply as "the expropriation of another author's work, and the presentation of it as one's own." The policy, last updated in 2011, further explains that plagiarism can involve more subtle actions than copying word-for-word. Plagiarism might also entail "the limited borrowing, without sufficient attribution, of another person's distinctive and significant research findings or interpretations." Thus, simple word counts or computer-driven comparisons cannot sufficiently weigh the complexities that each potential case of plagiarism potentially brings.


Copyright law — for which a body of federal law does exist and whose violation can result in civil fines or other penalties — is a cousin of plagiarism, but with a few key differences. Simply stated, a plagiarist is a person who poses as the creator of words, ideas or methods that are not his own. In contrast, a person infringes on another's copyright by making unauthorized use of material that is protected under copyright law. (For more on copyright issues, visit our Student Media Guide to Copyright Law.)

A few distinctions stand out. First, for purposes of plagiarism, the material stolen need not be protected by a copyright. For example, a person could plagiarize Shakespeare's works by not giving The Bard proper credit. He would not, however, be guilty of copyright infringement because all of Shakespeare's works, now about 400 years old, are in the public domain and can't be protected by copyright. Second, a copyright violation can occur even though the infringer gives proper credit to the creator and is, therefore, not guilty of plagiarism. For example, a student newspaper cannot, without permission, lift a picture out of Rolling Stone magazine to illustrate its own story — even if the source of the photo is carefully identified.

Of course, some people simultaneously take credit for and improperly use the work of others — they are both plagiarists and copyright infringers.


Despite the ambiguity that can exist when a charge of plagiarism is formally investigated, there are a few guidelines that can help conscientious students, teachers and others from falling into the plagiarism pit in the first place. Anne H. Frank, former counsel to the AAUP, has pointed out the following:

Almost all definitions of plagiarism require intent on the part of the alleged plagiarist. In other words, sloppy scholarship or journalism alone is not sufficient to sustain a charge of plagiarism. The plagiarist must have intended to deceive others into thinking that the copied work was, in fact, his own.

The form of the text is relevant. "Verbatim copying, without quotation marks or attribution," Frank says, "is generally more offensive than the paraphrase." Similarly, she points out that the context in which the original work is used is relevant to the determination or at least severity of a plagiarism charge. For example, a student taking a Nicholas Kristof column from The New York Times and running it in the student newspaper under her own name is different from a student inserting a paragraph from that column, without proper attribution, in an otherwise creative 200-page thesis. Both examples are plagiarism, though most would agree the degree of the offense differs.

When relying on others’ work, give credit -- frequently. This last suggestion points out what is probably the most important thing to keep in mind to avoid getting caught in the plagiarism tangle: when in doubt about how to use material in some way derived from someone else's hard work, simply attribute it.

Search engines have made plagiarism easier to detect, and harder to get away with, than ever before. For instance, an Aurora, Colo., high school principal was caught in 2011 republishing another principal’s newsletter as his own work, after a Google search of passages from the Colorado newsletter turned up verbatim chunks published online elsewhere.

Understanding and defending against a charge of plagiarism can be a confusing and complicated process. While some cases are so blatant that no defense is possible, most are "in disguise," requiring significant effort to adequately and fairly address the various nuances or shades that are hallmarks of the creative process. The results can be messy. Cautious and deliberate avoidance is the best — and only — sure defense.

Page updated September 2018

legal-research, plagiarism