Outstanding hosting from just $2.95/mo Free site transfers on most plansVisit Siteground > X

Are You Plagiarizing Content Without Knowing It?

Disclosure: Your support helps keep the site running! We earn a referral fee for some of the services we recommend on this page. Learn more

Are You Plagiarizing Content Without Knowing It?

Writing isn't necessarily the easiest of tasks - as a professional or as a student. There are a number of competing priorities to constantly contend with, clients that come through with vague details about assignments, unexpected revision requests, and too many new (and fun) ways to distract yourself from getting your work done.

With so many external sources interrupting your train of thought and workflow, it can be difficult sometimes keeping your mind completely trained on the task at hand.

Of course, a solid round of proofreading before sending your work off to an editor or professor will help keep any potential slips in quality in check. But what happens when you unintentionally plagiarize? Is that so easy of an error to catch? Hopefully, it is, but that's not always the case when you're distracted or short on time.

There are a number of reasons why you might have unintentionally plagiarized:

  • You didn't know that what you were doing was plagiarism.
  • You rushed through your assignment and forgot to properly quote and cite points you pulled from outside sources.
  • You forgot to run the plagiarism scanner tool to ensure that your brain (and fingers) didn't accidentally reproduce copy from someone else as your own.

Look, it happens. If you write for long enough and try to do too much of it at once, there are bound to be slip-ups. But that doesn't ever excuse plagiarism.

The following infographic defines what plagiarism is, why you might not realize that's what you've done, and includes some examples of famous plagiarism cases and how they were eventually resolved.

Are You Plagiarizing Without Knowing It? infographic

Are You Plagiarizing Without Knowing It?

Most people understand that copying and pasting the work of another person and claiming it as their own counts as plagiarism. But there are several other kinds of plagiarism that are easier to do accidentally and more difficult to recognize.

Types of Plagiarism

  • Plagiarism is more complicated than most people realize
  • People don't always mean to plagiarize
    • They might not correctly cite words or ideas they use
    • Or they might just be ignorant of the rules
  • Forms of plagiarism
    • Copying
      • Characterized by:
        • Taking anything from the original work word-for-word without reference
          • This can include:
            • Complete sentences
            • Paragraphs
            • Chapters
            • The entire work
    • Minor alterations
      • Characterized by:
        • Copying the original work
        • Changing a few words or their order to make it look different
        • Example:
          • Original: a Christian, a Muslim, and a Buddhist walk into a bar and the bartender says, "Is this a joke?!"
          • Plagiarism: a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Jew stroll into a pub and the server says, "Is this a joke?!"
          • Plagiarism: The bartender says, "Is this a joke?!" as a Jain, a Sikh, and a Wiccan walk into the bar.
    • Self-Plagiarism
      • Characterized by:
        • Use of one's own previously-written work
          • Plagiarism consists of presenting work as new and original
            • Reusing old work is called "recycling"
        • Writers should cite their own work to avoid plagiarism
    • Paraphrasing without citing
      • Characterized by:
        • Restating an author's words or ideas without giving credit to the original author
      • Example:
        • "The narwhal only has two teeth. In most females the teeth never erupt through the gum. In most adult males the right tooth remains embedded in the gum while the left tooth erupts through the front of the jaw and grows as an elongated tusk." - American Cetacean Society
        • "Narwhals have fewer teeth than one might expect: just two. In most females, they stay in the mouth, but in males, the left one tends to erupt from their jaw. It turns into a long tusk." - Ima Ersatz
          • Because Ima didn't indicate where she got this information from, it is plagiarism, even though she restated it in her own words

Plagiarism Penalties

  • Penalties for plagiarism depend on circumstances
    • Was it intentional?
    • Was it isolated or a pattern?
    • What industry did it occur in?
    • What were its effects?
  • The penalties can be severe
    • Loss of reputation
    • Professional sanction
    • Termination
    • Legal repercussions: lawsuits and fines

Famous Cases of Plagiarism

  • Future Russian President Vladimir Putin
    • Plagiarised parts of his dissertation, which was written in the 1990s
    • He copied text from two University of Pittsburgh scholars
      • He did, however, cite them, so it was likely accidental
  • Then Senator Joe Biden during his 1988 run for the Democratic presidential nomination
    • His standard stump speech included a story taken from British Labour Party member Neil Kinnock
      • At least once, Biden told the story as though it were his own
    • He was accused of other acts of plagiarism early on in his career
    • As a result, he ended his campaign for president
  • Jayson Blair was a reporter at The New York Times
    • He is better known for his outrageous fabrications, but he also plagiarized
    • In 2003, Blair published an article that was very similar to one published in The San Antonio Express-News
    • This led to an inquiry that uncovered a history of plagiarism and fabrication
    • Blair later explained how his misdeeds started small - a short quote - and grew into wholesale fabrications and plagiarism
  • The Iraq Dossier was produced by the UK government
    • It was used to justify the nation's participation in the Iraq War
    • A lecturer at Trinity College, Glen Rangwala, discovered that it had large sections of plagiarized work
      • An article by then-graduate student Ibrahim al-Marashi
      • Articles in Jane's Intelligence Review with minor changes
  • Ben Domenech, a blogger for The Washington Post
    • He took material from several writers, including humorist P J O'Rourke
    • He resigned after having written only six posts
    • Domenech remains a popular writer at various other websites
  • Fareed Zakaria, Time Magazine writer and CNN host
    • Plagiarized an article written by Jill Lepore in his column "The Case for Gun Control"
    • He quickly apologized for the similarities
    • Investigations into his past writings found that the incident was isolated and the result of sloppiness
  • Jonah Lehrer, a best-selling author and writer for The New Yorker
    • Caught self-plagiarizing his blog posts for articles in the magazine
    • Later resigned after Michael Moynihan published an article showing that Lehrer had fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his book Imagine

How to Avoid Plagiarism

  • While it's easy to plagiarize things on accident, paying careful attention to one's words and sources can help a writer avoid plagiarizing others
  • Things to keep in mind
    • Take care with paraphrasing
      • Purdue's Online Writing Lab defines paraphrasing as "putting a passage from source material into your own words"
        • Note: Merely changing words around is still plagiarism
          • Paraphrasing also involves new sentence and paragraph structure
      • The key difference between plagiarism and paraphrasing is crediting the original source
      • An article from University College points out that paraphrased text should begin by signalling where the original idea comes from
    • Cite your sources
      • Always make sure to cite sources when:
        • Quoting someone directly
        • Using an idea from someone else
      • The exact format used to cite will depend on the style manual preferred by the institute or industry
        • Literary and journalistic articles typically use MLA or The Chicago Manual of Style
        • The social sciences often use APA (American Psychological Association)
        • Newspapers use The Associated Press Stylebook
    • Make differences between your work and others' clear
      • Those accused of plagiarism often claim they couldn't tell the difference between their own work and their sources in their notes
        • To avoid this, keep notes and sources in a separate document from the original work
        • Writers should be sure to indicate which words are their own and which belong to other people
          • Beginning a paragraph by paraphrasing someone else, and only citing them at the end of the paragraph can be dishonest
          • The reader should always understand which words are the writer's and which are the source's
      • Over-citing
        • Some sources believe that work that is too dependent on other works can constitute plagiarism
          • Make sure that your work provides something more than just a repetition of what others have said
          • James D Lester says in Writing Research Papers, "Probably only about 10% of your final manuscript should appear as directly quoted matter."

Benjamin Franklin once wrote, "There is much difference between imitating a man and counterfeiting him." Writing is about self-expression, but it depends upon the entire history of human thought. Thus, when you are writing, you need to distinguish between what has been written and thought before, and what you are adding.

Sources: Acsonline.org, Answers.gpc.edu, Baylorschool.org, Ehow.com, Harvard.edu, Ithenticate.com, Msnbc.com, Nytimes.com, Plagiarism.org, Princeton.edu, Purdue.edu, Roosevelt.edu, Slate.com, Study.com, Theguardian.com, Thelawdictionary.org, Turnitin.com, Utoronto.ca, Virginia.edu, WashingtonPost.com, WashingtonTimes.com, Whoishostingthis.com, Wpacouncil.org, Writecheck.com,


Brenda Barron

About Brenda Barron

Brenda is an active online publisher and experienced WordPress blogger. She has been building websites since 1997. In addition, she publishes science fiction and fantasy stories under the name Brenda Stokes Barron.


Thanks for your comment. It will show here once it has been approved.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



October 23, 2017

Well explained and very helpful post. I’m a content writer and this post gave me better insights of how to be careful white writing content to avoid plagiarism issues.



June 27, 2018

Chelsea began hitting form in the late 90s. In fact, the club had not finished outside of the top ten in the Premier League since the 1995–96 season. In a fairly successful period (1996 to 2000), Chelsea won the FA Cup in 1997 and 2000 and the League Cup and UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1998. The club owners were however content with the status quo at the time and no expansion plans were in place. Simultaneously, United were hitting form and the reign of Alex Ferguson was on the verge of domination.


Frank Moraes

July 2, 2018

Excellent example, Prash!