This page only addresses general questions related to the definition and practice of plagiarism. For information about Carleton’s procedures for investigating suspected incidents of plagiarism and the potential penalties for confirmed plagiarism cases, please consult the Campus Handbook.

If you have additional questions that you think we should address on this page, please contact Dr. George Cusack.

Why is plagiarism such a big deal in academic writing?

In short, because academic writing and scholarly discourse depend on the full and honest exchange of ideas, and plagiarism undermines this exchange. View a full explanation of the ways plagiarism clashes with the principles of academic integrity.

What exactly does it mean to “cite your sources?”

Citing sources means documenting exactly what sources you use, where those sources came from, and how they contribute to your writing. To correctly cite your sources in academic writing, you’ll need to employ one of the formal documentation systems used in professional scholarship. View a detailed breakdown of these systems and how they work.

Does it count as plagiarism if I accidentally use words or ideas from an outside source without citing them correctly?

Technically speaking, the term plagiarism only applies to situations where an author deliberately takes credit for someone else’s work; accidentally taking credit for another author’s words or ideas through poor citation or some other error in your writing is more accurately referred to as misuse of sources.

However, misuse of sources can still count as an academic integrity violation, and you could still face penalties for doing it. It’s important to keep in mind that your instructor cannot read your mind, and they can’t know for certain the intentions behind your actions. Therefore, the responsibility ultimately rests on you to use your sources ethically and cite them correctly. Simply saying “I didn’t mean to take credit for someone else’s work; I just made a mistake citing my sources” is not enough to avoid the consequences of your actions.

For this reason, we use the terms “plagiarism” and “misuse of sources” interchangeably elsewhere on this site, to emphasize that, in practice, there may be no meaningful distinction between the two.

To avoid accidentally misusing your sources, you need to keep careful track of the ideas you encounter in your reading, so you don’t accidentally repeat another author’s claims as you write. And, if you’re ever in doubt about your use of sources, bring questions or (better yet) drafts to your instructor before you turn them in. That way, you and your instructor can work together to make sure you don’t inadvertently take credit for someone else’s intellectual labor. 

Does it count as plagiarism if I copy words or ideas from a paper I wrote for another class?

Yes. Unless you have your current instructor’s permission to do so, submitting all or part of a paper you wrote for another purpose in one of your current classes is a form of plagiarism.

I’ve written a paragraph that contains some facts from an outside reading and some ideas of my own. If I put a parenthetical reference to the outside source at the end of the paragraph, is that enough to avoid plagiarism?

No. In order to avoid plagiarism, you need to clearly indicate where your ideas end and the material from your sources begins, and you need to do it every time you switch from one to the other. This means using quotation marks and signal phrases (e.g. “As Rameriez notes…”) to mark your transition points. Simply placing a parenthetical note at the end of the paragraph will not give your readers enough information.

View examples and a detailed explanation for how to quote, paraphrase, and summarize sources effectively.

Is it ever okay to use online resources that offer “sample essays,” solution sets, or completed assignments for students? What if I just look at these resources for inspiration, and then do my own work from there?

No, this is almost never okay.

The internet is full of websites that offer completed academic work to students as a “resource” to help them with their own work. These sites generally advise students that they should only use these materials for “inspiration” or “reference,” and they either heavily imply or outright assert that, as long as students don’t directly copy these materials without citing them, then there’s nothing wrong with consulting them.

In practice, though, most instructors consider any use of essay or homework databases to be academic misconduct, because these sites allow students to compete assignments without doing the intellectual work that the assignments are designed to require.

The only exception to this would be if an instructor not only tells students explicitly that consulting outside resources is acceptable, but also explicitly authorizes students to use the exact resources that they consult. This does happen occasionally (but not often). Beyond this exception, though, you should assume that using any website that advertises itself as a way to make your homework easier is, in fact, an academic misconduct violation.

I found an image online that’s labeled “available for reuse.” If I use this image in an essay, do I need a citation?

Unless your instructor specifically says otherwise, yes, you need to cite all images and artwork that you use in your work unless you created them yourself for that assignment (if you created an image yourself for another project or assignment, then you should still cite it, giving yourself credit as the creator, which is kind of fun, actually).

This is true even for images that are labeled public domain or free to use. View a detailed explanation of copyright, public domain, and their relationship to plagiarism.

When do facts or information count as common knowledge? If a given fact is common knowledge, do I need a citation when I mention that fact in my writing?

The term common knowledge applies to facts or information that are so well known that you don’t need to cite a source when you mention them. The rules for what does and doesn’t qualify as common knowledge can be a bit complex, so we’ve written a detailed guide to common knowledge elsewhere on this site. As a general rule, though, it’s always better to cite a source when you don’t need to than to miss a citation when you need one.

View a detailed explanation of common knowledge.

If I use code from another programmer in a program I’m writing, do I need to cite that as a source?

In most cases, yes, you’ll need to cite the other programmer as an outside source. Some instructors might make exceptions to this rule for certain assignments, but unless your instructor explicitly tells you otherwise, assume that any time you use code written by someone else, you’ll need a citation of some kind.

View a more detailed explanation of the rules for using and citing code.

What happens if I cite my source correctly, but that source turns out to be plagiarized or fraudulent?

If you made a good-faith effort to cite your source honestly, and if you had no reasonable way of knowing that your source was plagiarized or fraudulent, then you can’t be held responsible for that source’s plagiarism.

That said, if you use a source that’s obviously untrustworthy or inappropriate for the type of assignment you completed (e.g. if you cited an anonymous personal blog as professional scholarship), then it might affect your assignment grade, even if you instructor doesn’t consider your use of that source to be plagiarism or academic misconduct on your part.

What do I do if my instructor doesn’t make their expectations for using outside sources clear?

The best practices surrounding plagiarism and the use of outside sources apply to every writing situation by default. Beyond these, it’s at least partially your responsibility to find out how each of your instructors wants you to use and document sources.

If your instructor’s expectations for a given course or assignment are unclear, then the best thing you can do to be proactive and ask them. See our “best practices” page for suggestions on what questions to ask.

What if I’m working on a collaborative project and one of my group members plagiarizes?

At Carleton specifically, the Academic Standing Committee investigates every case of suspected plagiarism, and they will make a reasonable effort to determine who is responsible in cases where plagiarism in a group project might not be the fault of the entire group. However, if your collaborator is not willing to take full responsibility for their actions, and if you can’t prove conclusively that you took no part in the plagiarism, then it’s not impossible that you could be held responsible for plagiarism committed by your collaborator without your knowledge.

Thus, it’s important to pay attention to the work your collaborators complete and make sure everyone in your group understands the rules for using and documenting sources correctly.  If you have any doubts about your collaborators’ use of sources or academic honesty, you should bring your concerns to them or to your instructor as soon as possible before you submit the assignment in question

Given the potential consequences for plagiarism and academic dishonesty, you shouldn’t let peer pressure or the desire to be a positive collaborator prevent you from raising these concerns. Ultimately, you’ll be doing yourself and your collaborators a favor by addressing them.