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What is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism occurs when an individual or organization passes off someone else's work or idea as their own.[1] According to RIT's Student Academic Integrity Policy:

Plagiarism is the representation of others’ ideas as one’s own without giving proper attribution to the original author or authors. Plagiarism occurs when a student copies direct phrases from a text (e.g. books, journals, and internet) and does not provide quotation marks or paraphrases or summarizes those ideas without giving credit to the author or authors. In all cases, if such information is not properly and accurately documented with appropriate credit given, then the student has committed plagiarism.[2]

Sometimes the act of plagiarizing can be purely unintentional. This situation usually results from confusion about citation format or paraphrasing rules, or improper use of commonly known facts. There are also occasions of unintentional plagiarism due to differing cultural norms.

A somewhat less prominent means of plagiarizing is the plagiarism of one’s own work.  Often raised as more of an ethical issue, self-plagiarism involves using one’s own paper or research for more than one class without properly citing the work. In the case of authorship it would include using portions of earlier research in new publications and not attributing the earlier work. The best advice is recycle work sparingly and carefully cite as necessary.


Plagiarism Beyond Writing

Plagiarism can occur outside the realm of text-based or written assignments and research papers.

With the increased ease of internet searching and the ability to cut-and-paste or quickly download files, non-text plagiarism is on the rise. In addition, software tools allow for easy manipulation of various media files.

Three common examples of non-text plagiarism issues are related to computer coding, music and visual arts.

Computer Code

As in academic writing, computer programmers writing code must cite written code that is not their own work. If students copy or adapt code from another source, they must attribute or cite it.

The common practice is to include an inline comment in the code itself. The inline comment not only gives proper credit to the author of the original code, but also helps with understanding and potential debugging. For example:

// Code adapted from UVA Library example:


Plagiarism in the arts is complex.  As J. Peter Burkholder writes in Oxford Music Online, “Most broadly, all music draws on the repertory of notes, scales, gestures and other elements available in that tradition, so that every piece borrows from earlier pieces in its own tradition. Thus in the widest sense the history of borrowing in music is the history of improvisation, composition and performance.”[3]

Nevertheless, there are numerous examples of plagiarism or copyright infringement within the sphere of music.  In April 2016, a judge ruled that there was enough evidence for a lawsuit against members of Led Zeppelin to move to trial.  According to the lawsuit, Led Zeppelin and guitarist Jimmy Page plagiarized portions of their song “Stairway to Heaven” from another artist, Randy Wolfe (performing as Randy California).

Visual Arts

Within the traditional Art Academy, the act of copying the work of the Masters is a recognized method of artistic training. However, it is important to educate students when copying for technical skill and understanding is appropriate in the educational setting and what their creative, ethical role is as a professional artist and designer.

Visual plagiarism in an academic setting is exhibited in one of two ways:


Further Reading

Examine the original passage and the summarized passage below. Is the summarized passage properly paraphrased or is it an example of plagiarism?

Original Passage
If we are to take Tolkien's work as he wrote it and as he clearly wanted his audience to read it—as a true mythology, with all the layering and multiple narrators and overlapping texts and variant versions that characterize mythologies in the real world—then we must allow that, like those real-world mythologies, all the parts, even the apparently inconsequential ones, are in the greater service of the whole. To read his work as anything less is to do a disservice, perhaps even a violence, to it.

Summarized Passage
Tolkien wanted his many writings to be viewed like a real mythology, including different versions of the same stories written by different people. All his works, both famous and less-known, are important as part of the same overall mythology. A reader who treats Tolkien's work otherwise is not doing it justice (Flieger 84).

Not plagiarism! This time, the author has written the summary in her own words, changing it significantly from the original passage. The ideas presented in the original passage remain, but the words are now hers. She has also given the original author credit.

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Original Passage
Despite its origin in scientific research and educational pursuits, it did not take long for marketers, advertisers, and public relations practitioners to find the Internet. What they found was an uncharted land that rivaled their wildest dreams. More than a decade later the Web remains the least regulated of all mass media. Although the dot com bust of the early 2000s slowed the commercial expansion of the web, we are beginning to witness a strong rebound in every area, including online advertising. Today, the one feature that best defines the web is its unrelenting commercialism.

Summarized Passage
Although it was originally used in scientific research and education, marketers, advertisers and PR people quickly found the Internet. They were happy to discover a medium that was mostly unregulated and still is more than ten years later. Although there was a slowdown a few years ago due to the dot-com bust, commercial use of the web is increasing again; one of the most obvious aspects of today's web is commercialism.

Plagiarism! The writer of this summary altered a few words and phrases, but he did not paraphrase the original paragraph and he failed to give credit to the original source.

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[1] Plagiarism. (2016). In OED Online. Retrieved from

[2] Rochester Institute of Technology. (2013, March 16). Student academic integrity policy. Retrieved from University Policies website:

[3] Burkholder, J. P. (2016). Borrowing. In D. Root (Ed.), Grove Music Online. Retrieved from