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What Is Plagiarism and How to Avoid It: A Guide for International Students

In the United States, plagiarism is a violation of academic integrity. Learn about the types of plagiarism and how to stay in good academic standing while studying in the USA.

A college student holding an exam booklet and a pencil.

Plagiarism is a serious issue in United States colleges and universities. From copying test answers to not citing sources in an essay, cheating has become a major problem for American college students. Even though rules about plagiarism might be different in other countries, international students are still expected to obey the United States’ plagiarism policies.

However, plagiarism is easily avoidable. Here are some facts about plagiarism and some tips on how to avoid it. 

What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism is the act of taking someone else’s ideas and passing them off as your own.

Common examples of plagiarism include:

  • Using someone else’s words or ideas and not giving them credit

  • Not including quotations or quotation marks

  • Paraphrasing an article or essay without citations

  • Turning in someone else’s essay or test as your own

  • Using a video, photograph, or song without the artist’s permission

Universities and colleges all take plagiarism very seriously. In the United States, plagiarism is a violation of academic integrity. Academic integrity is the “honesty policy” for students. Colleges and universities in the United States grade students on their academic honesty, the value of their own work, and their original, creative ideas. If a student is caught copying or cheating, they can fail the class and can even be removed from school. 

Plagiarism is also illegal—it is a type of copyright infringement, a law that protects work from being used without the author’s approval or permission. Punishments can include anything from fining and expulsion from school to damages to professional reputation—which makes it harder to get a job.

What types of plagiarism are there?

There are two types of plagiarism: intentional and accidental. Intentional plagiarism is knowingly taking someone else’s ideas and choosing not to give them credit. Accidental plagiarism is when a student meant to cite their sources or ask for an author’s permission, but forgot to. This type is a little harder to define. 

According to Turnitin, an American plagiarism detection website, the “copy-and-paste” method is the most common method of plagiarism among college students. This method means a student takes sections or the entirety of someone else’s essay and passes it off as their own by “copy and pasting” into their empty document. An example of intentional “copy-and-paste” plagiarism would be a student submitting paragraphs from an outside source without quotation marks or citations. However, plagiarism could be accidental if a student included quotation marks and simply forgot the citation, but meant to include it. Even though accidental plagiarism is still plagiarism, universities may be more forgiving, although the student will still get in trouble. 

Another common example of accidental plagiarism is paraphrasing, which is when students change or rearrange words in someone else’s writing to try and make it their own. Paraphrasing is often confused with summarizing, which takes a big piece of information and boils it down to its main points, entirely in that student’s own words. 

How big of an issue is plagiarism among college students?

Reports of plagiarism by students have risen significantly in the past ten years, mostly due to technology and computers. According to the International Center for Academic Integrity, 68% of undergraduates admitted to cheating on either a test or written assignment. A survey from Rutgers University showed that 36% of undergraduate students admitted to copying content from the Internet without citing it, and 14% admitted to making up a bibliography for an essay rather than cite their sources. Another poll showed that 55% of college and university presidents say that student plagiarism has increased over the past ten years, and most say that this increase is due to computers and the Internet. 

However, the Internet has also helped to stop plagiarism with online detectors that tell students if they have been paraphrasing or copying an idea without citations. These detectors scan essays and compare the language to existing sources online, making sure that phrases and paragraphs are not being lifted from other articles or essays.

How to avoid plagiarism

Here are some easy ways to avoid plagiarism:

  • Use quotation marks. If you are taking something verbatim from an outside source, use quotation marks to show that it is not your original idea. Make sure to cite it in your bibliography.

  • Cite everything, even if it feels excessive. Even if you think that you have avoided paraphrasing, if you are taking any ideas from another source, cite it in your bibliography. It is always better to be safe than sorry!

  • Use a plagiarism checker. Sites like Turnitin or Grammarly have plagiarism detectors that double-check your essays to make sure that you have avoided paraphrasing and that you have cited all your sources. Many American professors like to use sites like Turnitin to grade student essays, too.

  • Talk to your professors and advisors if you have questions. If you are unsure whether you are paraphrasing or summarizing, or if you have a question about citing material, stop by your professor’s office hours or send them an email. They would much rather answer your questions than report you for plagiarism.

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