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Plagiarism: What It Is and How to Avoid It on Assignments

Plagiarizing can hurt you now and way into the future. But do you know what really counts as plagiarism? Hint: it's way more than copying someone else's essay.

Plagiarism: You know it’s bad. You know if you do it, you’ll get into trouble. So, you know not to go online, find an essay someone else wrote, and submit it as your own. That’s obviously plagiarism, after all. But there are a lot of other things that count as plagiarism too, things that aren’t quite as obvious—but can get you into just as much trouble. And that’s why we’re here! To make sure you are 100% clear on what counts as plagiarism so you can stay on the right side of the law in your high school work, your college applications, and the work you do once you get into college.

What counts as plagiarism?

First things first: what is plagiarism? The easy answer is that plagiarism is using someone else’s work and saying it’s your work. More importantly, plagiarism is cheating, and schools do not tolerate it. If you’re caught plagiarizing, you could fail a class, be put on academic probation, get suspended from school, or expelled entirely. (And if you’re caught plagiarizing on your college applications, well, you’ll just never get accepted to the school, simple as that.)

Lying about doing the work yourself

The biggest and worst form of plagiarism is just straight-out lying about the work you turn in. If your English professor assigns an essay on The Great Gatsby and you find an essay online, copy it, and put your name on the top, that’s plagiarism. And it’s not only the worst form of plagiarism—it’s the dumbest form. First of all, teachers and even college TAs have a very good sense of your work, so when you turn in something that doesn’t sound like you, it’s going to raise suspicion. And as easy as it was for you to hop on Google and find that essay, it’s just as easy for your professor to do the same…and fail you. Second of all, many professors run every essay they receive through special plagiarism-detecting software—software that’s way better at finding plagiarism than you think. So it is not worth taking the risk. You will be caught. And fast.

Not properly citing your sources

A much more common and often unintentional form of plagiarism is not citing a quoted source. Let’s say you’re writing a paper about civil engineering and you look it up in the encyclopedia to get a definition. If you read the encyclopedia article and explain what you learned in your paper, that’s not plagiarism. Once you learn some general knowledge, like definitions and famous historical events and dates, you can just use that in your work. However! If you copy part of a sentence, a sentence, or a paragraph directly out of the article and put it in your paper—maybe because the original author just said it the simplest and best way possible—then you have to quote it and cite it. Even if you just paraphrase an idea without saying where it came from, that’s plagiarism. So any time you want to use someone else’s words or ideas, make sure you give credit to that person. Really, when in doubt, cite it out. In terms of how to cite something, different schools and different departments have different citations styles (MLA, APA, and Chicago styles, just to name a few), but your professor should make clear how to cite your work at the beginning of the semester, so make sure you know what they expect from you.

Related: 3 Myths About Plagiarism All Students Should Know About

Why you should never plagiarize

Okay, so now that you’re super clear on what plagiarism looks like, let’s dig a little bit deeper into why you should never, ever do it (no matter how tempting it can be). Of course, the first and most obvious reason is because you don’t want to fail the class or get in trouble. That’s easy. (And if it’s not, just think for a moment about what happens when you have to explain it to your parents. Are you convinced yet?) But even more, think about why you’re at school: you’re there to learn. And we don’t even mean this in a touchy-feely “learning is the best” way. We mean it in the most practical way possible. You need to learn so you can graduate, get a job that makes you happy, and be successful for the rest of your life. If you just find someone else’s work and say it’s your own, you’re not actually learning anything. Coasting never works in the long run. When you finish school, that’s knowledge that you missed out on, stuff you needed to know for the real world. Sure, you won’t use everything you learn in high school and college, and you might save some time on an assignment by plagiarizing, but is it worth risking all that time and money and your reputation? No, it’s really not.

Related: This Is What Happens When You Cheat in School

Plagiarism can be obvious, but it can also be subtle and easy to overlook. So be careful out there as a student trying to complete assignments quickly just to get it done. Plagiarism is a serious thing, and you want to make sure to avoid it at all costs so you don’t risk your future—and your degree upon graduation.

Still struggling with assignments that make plagiarizing seem appealing? Check out all the tips you could ever need with Our Best Advice for Homework, Studying, and Tests.

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