Defining Plagiarism

The AHA’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct defines plagiarism as the appropriation of “the exact wording of another author without attribution,” and the borrowing of “distinctive and significant research findings or interpretations” without proper citation. Most cases of plagiarism represent a failure to properly paraphrase, quote, and cite sources.

Forms of Plagiarism

The most obvious form of inappropriate borrowing involves the verbatim pirating of paragraphs, pages, or entire papers or chapters without quotation or attribution. The large amount of copying involved in such cases makes the occurrence of plagiarism undeniable.

Most plagiarism is more subtle. Writers plagiarize, for example, when they fail to use quotation marks around borrowed material and to cite the source, use an inadequate paraphrase that makes only superficial changes to a text, or neglect to cite the source of a paraphrase. The result is often a patchwork of original and plagiarized texts that echoes the original sources in recognizable ways. The following example illustrates these formsof plagiarism by setting a passage from Francis Parkman’s Montcalm and Wolfe next to a fictional plagiarism:

Montcalm and Wolfe

All, and more than all, that France had lost England had won. Now, for the first time, she was beyond dispute the greatest of maritime and colonial Powers. Portugal and Holland, her precursors in ocean enterprise, had long ago fallen hopelessly behind. Two great rivals remained, and she had humbled the one and swept the other from her path. Spain, with vast American possessions, was sinking into the decay which is one of the phenomena of modern history; while France, of late a most formidable competitor, had abandoned the contest in despair. England was mistress of the seas.1

1 Francis Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1885), 411.

Plagiarized Version

France’s loss was England’s gain. For the first time, the English found themselves the greatest of maritime and colonial powers. The countries of Portugal and Holland, which had ventured seaward long before England, had fallen hopelessly behind. “Two great rivals remained,” wrote Francis Parkman of Spain and France, “and she had humbled the one and swept the other from her path.”1 Spain, with vast American possessions, was sinking into decay, and France, although a fierce rival before the war, abandoned the competition in despair. England ruled the waves.

1 Francis Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1885), 411.

First, the plagiarized version copies Parkman’s language almost verbatim in two places, without using quotation marks or citing the source: the phrases “the greatest of maritime and colonial powers” and “Spain, with vast American possessions, was sinking into decay” appear in both passages. Second, the plagiarized version paraphrases Parkman’s work poorly by retaining too much of the original author’s language and organization. In one place, for example, the writer altered only a single word, taking Parkman’s claim that France “abandoned the contest in despair” and changing it to “abandoned the competition in despair.” Such cosmetic alterations indicate a lack of synthesis and original thought and represent a theft of Parkman’s text. The plagiarized version also echoes Parkman too closely from beginning to end by following his organization slavishly. Every component of the original has a parallel in the plagiarized version, and they appear in exactly the same order. Parkman’s ending, “England was the mistress of the seas,” for example, becomes “England ruled the waves.” Third, the plagiarized version fails to cite Parkman’s work as the source of the entire paraphrase (although it does correctly cite the small amount of quoted material).

One way for the writer to solve these problems would be to rewrite the entire passage in his or her own words, emphasizing only those points important to the writer’s larger argument, and then cite Parkman. If the writer wants to retain Parkman’s words and organization, however, he or she might quote the entire passage from Montcalm and Wolfe and cite its source.

Note that the illustration does not demonstrate all possible forms of plagiarism. For example, making use of an author’s distinctive interpretation without giving credit also constitutes plagiarism. In the passage above, however, Parkman does not put forth an original interpretation that requires citation.


The AHA considers plagiarism to be the failure to properly acknowledge the work of another, regardless of intent. The Modern Language Association also takes this position in the sixth and most recent edition of its MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. Other writing guides and college handbooks similarly maintain that plagiarism can be, and often is, unintentional. Claiming otherwise provides easy absolution for sloppy work and convenient cover for plagiarists, since intent to deceive is often impossible to prove. An instructor does not need to consider intent until after he or she establishes that plagiarism has occurred, when it becomes important in assessing sanctions.

Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement

Although the concepts of plagiarism and copyright infringement overlap, two fundamental differences distinguish them. First, plagiarism is most often an ethical offense, while copyright infringement always carries the potential for legal consequences. Second, plagiarism is primarily about copying material without proper attribution, while copyright infringement is concerned with borrowing significant portions of a work without permission from the copyright holder, whether or not the holder is cited. If a person, for example, republishes a volume of George Bancroft’s nineteenth-century classic History of the United States of America and claims to be the author, he or she commits plagiarism but not copyright infringement, since the copyright expired many years ago. The individual would suffer the condemnation of the historical profession, and may have committed fraud, but would not have broken any copyright laws. If a person, however, incorporates an entire chapter of a more recent historical work into a new book without the permission of the copyright holder, the person is not guilty of plagiarism if he or she cites the source. But the person does infringe on the original author’s copyright, whether or not the wronged author is properly credited.