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All students should be familiar with the University's policy on academic integrity. If you've never seen it, you can read the entire policy online and get access to other resources regarding Academic Integrity at the Office of Student Judicial Affairs. It's a somewhat complicated document, though, and even after reading it you may not understand what plagiarism is or how you can avoid it. And, given the fact that the consequences can be severe (you could be suspended from the University for a minimum of one semester with the notation of  "academic disciplinary suspension" permanently placed on your transcript, not to mention failing the class and having to start all over again), it's crucial that you develop a good understanding of just what plagiarism is.

That's what this page will help you do. Not only will you learn the University's official policy on plagiarism, but you'll also be able to explore some gray areas of this serious academic offense as well. To help you resolve these gray areas, and to help you avoid them in your own writing, we'll look at the underlying issues in plagiarism. Then, you'll learn what makes instructors usually suspect plagiarism, in the process actually learning more about your own writing. Finally, we'll look at some alternatives to plagiarism.

Plagiarism Defined:

In the policy on academic integrity, the University defines plagiarism as

the representation of the words or ideas of another as one's own in any academic work. To avoid plagiarism, every direct quotation must be identified by quotation marks, or by appropriate indentation, and must be cited properly according to the accepted format for the particular discipline.  Acknowledgment is also required when material from any source is paraphrased or summarized in whole or in part in one's own words.  To acknowledge a paraphrase properly, one might state: to paraphrase Plato's comment... and conclude with a footnote or appropriate citation to identify the exact reference.  A footnote acknowledging only a directly quoted statement does not suffice to notify the reader of any preceding or succeeding paraphrased material. Information that is common knowledge, such as names of leaders of prominent nations, basic scientific laws, etc, need not be cited; however, the sources of all facts or information obtained in reading or research that are not common knowledge among students in the course must be acknowledged.  In addition to materials specifically cited in the text, other materials that contribute to one's general understanding of the subject may be acknowledged in the bibliography.

Sometimes, plagiarism can be a subtle issue. Students should be encouraged to discuss any questions about what constitutes plagiarism with the faculty member teaching the course.  (Academic Integrity Policy, Section 2C)

Basically, your work needs to be yours. But, while the policy focuses on misusing printed sources by failing to paraphrase or use quotation, any time your work is not your own you're plagiarizing. And that makes it much more complicated, because sometimes what you think is your work isn't fully your work, and that can lead to problems with plagiarism.


Plagiarizing sounds obvious, but as the policy ominously suggests, it can be a subtle issue. Take this quick test to see how well you recognize plagiarizing.  In each case, determine if the student is plagiarizing:

  1. A student has failed the first three papers. Frustrated, he buys a paper from a student in another section.

  2. A student is having problems with her paper so she asks a friend to help her out. The friend makes several revisions, changing sentences and even a paragraph that needed work.

  3. A student is having problems with the language of an essay because the sentences are so complex. So, to set-up a quotation he's using, he uses sentences from the essay without using quotation marks.

  4. A student is working on her paper with other students from her class. They fix a number of her errors as well as making some comments on paragraphs that need to be fixed.

  5. English is the second language for a student. As part of his education, he has learned a technique called "pasting," where he builds his sentences using phrases from the author of the essay.

  6. In class group-work, one student gets a great idea for an argument from another student.  They each write papers with the same argument, though they each phrase it differently.

  7. A student is working with a tutor on her paper. She's using her own ideas, but the tutor is giving her words to use to express those ideas. The work is the student's, but the language is the tutor's.

All of the above examples are plagiarism except for 4 and 6.  In all of the other cases, the work is not the student's—it belongs to the author of the essay, or to the friend who wrote those sentences, or to the tutor who supplied those words, or to the person who wrote the whole paper. And while the first case is rather obvious, the difference between the second and fourth case is a lot less obvious. In each case, the student is just trying to get some help. And in each case, the person/people helping the student makes changes to the paper, so what's the difference between the two? It has to do with boundaries.

Intellectual Boundaries:

Understanding plagiarism means understanding the boundaries between your ideas and the ideas of others, knowing where your ideas end and theirs start. In fact, the word "plagiarism" comes from the Latin word plagiarius, meaning "kidnapper." When you plagiarize, you're taking someone, not just their ideas. To avoid plagiarism, you need to maintain that boundary between yourself, your ideas, and the many others you'll encounter in class and your readings.

That's precisely the difference between cases 4 and 2 above: In one instance, a student's peers are helping her correct the words already in her paper. These are her ideas and the peers are only making sure she expresses them more clearly. But as soon as a friend starts changing paragraphs or even a sentence, the ideas are changing as well. They no longer belong to the student, but to the friend. The boundary has been crossed.

But that's not always an easy boundary to find, because often so much of the work we do in the classroom is collaborative. So we also need to understand the difference between public and private intellectual property.

Public and Private Property:

The work we do in class, through groups and class discussion, is public intellectual property. These ideas are up for grabs because although others have helped form them, so have you, so they are in some part your ideas. The same is true for group work: Everyone contributes to the idea that is created, so everyone owns it and can use it.

Private intellectual property involves ideas that you have had no part in creating and that are not available to everyone. When authors publish essays, they make their ideas public. You're free to work with them (we, in fact, ask you to work with them), but you need to acknowledge them through quotation and citation. Unlike the work you did in class, after all, you did not contribute to these ideas—they remain, in the end, private. In the same way, another student's paper is private intellectual property, even if you and the other student are writing from the same "public" class discussion. When that other student takes that public property and extends or transforms it, it becomes private. In general, private ideas are ideas that are not your own, writing you have not written, and words that are not part of your base of knowledge. If you use private intellectual property in your own work, then you've crossed the boundary, and you are plagiarizing.

How can you be sure you're not crossing that line? Listen to your voice. That's what we as teachers do.

Hearing Your Voice:

When we read your papers, we hear your voice. In fact, as you read this now, you're probably "hearing" me in your head. The same is true whenever we as teachers pick up one of your essays and, in fact, we have a very good sense of your voice from the first-day writing sample. With each paper, we "listen" to you improve, though on some level the voice always sounds the same. No matter how may students we have, no matter how many sections we're teaching, we always know your written voice, and we do what we can through commenting and classwork to help you develop that voice, to move it further into academic discourse.

It's when the voice doesn't sound the same that we begin to suspect that either you've been given too much help or that, in fact, you've plagiarized. It may be that you're using language that sounds different from what you've used in other papers. It may be that your ideas don't sound like other ideas you've had. In any case, the paper sounds different. There's no way to disguise this. If you came into class suddenly speaking an octave higher, we'd notice that too. It's just as obvious when we read your work.

But that means it's obvious to you, too. If you're not sure if you're plagiarizing, all you have to do is make sure that you can talk about your paper. After all, a paper is really just a written conversation—can you continue that conversation in person? Would you be able to explain the ideas you're presenting in your paper? Can you explain the words you're using to help express those ideas? As long as you can discuss your paper, explain it further, and explain the very language you use, then the paper is clearly, firmly, you and yours.

Traditions of Rhetoric:

Avoiding plagiarism can be especially difficult for international students. Universities in the U.S. require a different style and form of writing than expected in other countries. Each culture has its own style. This includes differences in how other texts and ideas are introduced into a student's essay.

In some cultures, students are taught to integrate another author's words in their own sentences without citation (a technique called "pasting"). This technique signifies the student's respect for the other writer's ideas. Such a technique also compliments the audience of the essay. It assumes that the audience has read the same texts as the student and will recognize the other author's words without needing a direct reference.

In the U.S., however, respect is shown by direct attribution of all ideas developed by other writers. Writers are assumed to own their ideas, and to not acknowledge the source of an idea is effectively to steal from them.

The assumptions about audience are different, too. In the U.S., the audience is assumed to have general knowledge and critical reasoning, but may not have specific knowledge about the particular topic you are writing about.You need to acknowledge directly whose ideas you are citing and what text that idea comes from so that readers can read for themselves the texts and authors you cite.

Finally, direct quoting and citation are important because of how readers evaluate the strength of an argument. Readers need to see the passage of text you analyze in a direct quotation so that they can read it themselves and develop their own interpretation. Readers then decide if your argument is persuasive by comparing their interpretation to the one you provide in your essay.

Think About Alternatives:

Most people plagiarize unintentionally. They just get too much help. For those of you getting help outside class and outside the Writing Centers, you may want to make sure your "voice" is still there, but if you're considering plagiarizing a paper intentionally, here are some things to think about:

  1. It may be that you're pressed for time or can't handle the work, but think about all the work involved in plagiarizing. It may seem like a quick answer, but understand there will be a lot of lying and track covering left to do. It will probably end up taking more time than just doing the paper yourself.

  2. Consider also this: If you're smart enough to "get away" with plagiarism, you're probably smart enough to do well in this class. You could cheat and cheat yourself in the process, or you could take the time and energy you would spend plagiarizing and make your paper that much better.

  3. If you're considering plagiarism because you need to pass and just can't seem to write a passing paper, understand there are other options.

In every case there is an alternative. Consider some of these:

  1. Talk with your teacher about the problems you're having with time, or work, or making it through the class. We're actually here to help you, so you'd do better to enlist us on your side rather than working against us through plagiarism. We make much better friends than enemies.

  2. Talk with an Assistant Director. There are several Assistant Directors on each campus, whose contact information is listed on the Directors and Staff page.  Each course page also lists the Assistant Director in charge of that course.  In any case, all Directors can help you cope with your situation, and our doors are always open.

  3. Sign up for tutoring. Our Writing Centers have tremendous success with students. Since tutors are trained specifically to work with Writing Program classes, you can be assured that the help you receive will be focused and helpful, while also making sure you don't receive "too much help," which could lead to plagiarism.

The Writing Program takes plagiarism very seriously when it happens. But we're committed to helping you so that you don't have to commit plagiarism. So, if you're considering plagiarism, or just not sure whether or not you may be getting too much help, be sure to talk to someone: your tutor, your teacher, or one of the Assistant Directors. You'll end up saving yourself a lot of trouble in the end.

Contact Us

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Rutgers Writing Program
Murray Hall, Room 108
510 George Street
New Brunswick, NJ 08901 

TEL (848) 932-7570
FAX (732) 932-3094