Understanding and avoiding plagiarism

Plagiarism involves a failure to credit another’s work or ideas, including data, word-for-word quotations, paraphrasing, methodology when conducting an experiment, and even music, images and other media forms. Although plagiarism can refer to the intentional copying of others’ work, it is most often committed accidentally, as a result of incorrect referencing or citation. Alternatively, a lack of awareness of previous studies can lead to plagiarism, and a failure even to reference one’s own work will cause problems of copyright.

Consequences of plagiarism

In the majority of cases, such problems with references will be identified and resolved during the review process. However, if identified later, or indeed if it is deemed that an intentional attempt has been made to steal another’s intellectual property (IP) or to copy other authors’ work, there can be serious consequences. These consequences range from simple warnings to expulsion from an institution of study or research, and even legal proceedings.

Students at universities and colleges can be suspended from their course if they are found to plagiarize. Plagiarism, especially repeated plagiarism, can be a factor during the retention, tenure and promotion (RTP) process. Your academic reputation is essential to your career, and any allegation of plagiarism made against you can tarnish that reputation. Avoiding plagiarism is important and worth the extra time and effort it take to do so.

Common forms of plagiarism

In a survey completed in 2013 by iThenticate (a popular tool for identifying plagiarism), 334 respondents from 50 countries rated the most serious and most common forms of plagiarism as defined by iThenticate:

  1. Complete plagiarism: Submitting another’s work as one’s own
  2. Verbatim plagiarism: Failure to indicate a quotation
  3. Unethical collaboration: Failing to correctly reference colleagues’ work
  4. Paraphrasing: Incorporating another’s words into one’s original text
  5. Repetitive research: Using methodology and data or text from another’s work without due credit
  6. Secondary source plagiarism: Referencing only the primary source even if it was found mentioned within a secondary source

It was found that complete plagiarism was considered the least likely form of plagiarism, but was nonetheless deemed the most serious.


It has been found that self-plagiarism is the commonest form of plagiarism and is the most frequently occurring reason for a work to be retracted. The reason for this is that while the ideas and the work of others are not being stolen, the copyright of publishers is often ignored. It is therefore vital that one’s own work is adequately referenced in new publications, and is never reproduced in its entirety.

Avoiding plagiarism with tools

In order to help avoid or identify plagiarism, there are tools such as iThenticatewhich scan documents, compare them with others stored on the system and identify areas of similarity. These can then be deleted if appropriate, or measures must be taken to ensure that appropriate credit has been given to the original sources. Although it may not seem that plagiarism has been committed, it is always a good idea to check the originality of a piece of work, using a tool such as iThenticate.


As mentioned, most plagiarism is unintentional, and a result of an honest mistake. It is therefore important to understand what exactly constitutes plagiarism in order to ensure that it is eliminated before publication.


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