Rules and Principles Behind Plagiarism

Ideally, this would be the section of the site that tells you exactly how every one of your teachers defines plagiarism. In a perfect world, we’d even include a nice, bulleted list of exactly what practices you must follow and avoid in all of your classes and assignments in order to prevent yourself from committing plagiarism.

Unfortunately, such an easy breakdown does not exist, because the rules for what practices constitute plagiarism vary, sometimes significantly, from discipline to discipline, and even from course to course within the same discipline.

Once again, this means that, as a student writer, it’s your obligation to understand the exact rules regarding what does and does not constitute plagiarism for each course and assignment. Your instructor should give you the basic information you need to understand this, but ultimately the responsibility for knowing the rules and applying them lies with you.

That said, the rules surrounding plagiarism aren’t arbitrary. In practice, faculty set the rules for their courses and assignments based on five basic principles, which all academic disciplines share:

Five Principles: Why Plagiarism Matters 

1) Education

As obvious as it may seem, instructors design writing assignments to help students learn, and plagiarism contradicts that goal. Academic assignments are, in essence, a series of intellectual challenges that, if completed successfully, will help you understand the course material more fully. Thus, if you submit a piece in which all or part of the intellectual work you were meant to do was actually completed by someone else, you defeat the purpose of the assignment, and in the process you undermine your education.

2) Attribution of Credit

A foundational principle of scholarly discourse is that individuals deserve credit for their ideas and their intellectual labor. As both students and scholars, much of the work we do only exists in our writing, and when someone else takes that work without acknowledging it, it effectively erases our efforts and accomplishments. (The same, obviously, goes for non-academic writers, artists, and creators whose work one might plagiarize.) Simply put, if another author produces something significant enough that you want to use it in your own writing, then you owe it to that person to recognize their work and its contribution to your work.

3) Maintaining Scholarly Discourse

The broad purpose of scholarly writing, and scholarship in general, is to allow individuals to learn from and build on the ideas of other people, and thereby advance the overall level of human knowledge. That rather lofty goal depends on scholars maintaining an accurate record of how ideas have appeared, developed, and influenced each other over time. Most, if not all, scholarship involves reconsidering and responding to what others have said before, and in order to do that, you have to be able to trace statements and ideas accurately back to their source. Plagiarism, by definition, prevents readers from tracing ideas back to their true source, which makes the scholarly process more difficult. Thus, from this point of view, plagiarism actively impedes the advancement of human knowledge through scholarship.

4) Academic Integrity

The term “academic integrity” refers to the practice of representing yourself and your academic work truthfully throughout your education. The grades and course credits you receive are only meaningful if they accurately reflect your work and learning, and thus all students are expected to maintain academic integrity and not seek grades or credit that they do not earn through the regular work of that course. Plagiarism is therefore a violation of academic integrity because, when you present someone else’s work as your own, you essentially claim to have worked and learned in a way that you have not done. Colleges and universities take academic integrity very seriously because nearly everything we do depends on it in some way. Instructors can’t serve students well if they can’t accurately understand what students have learned and what they haven’t, and faculty can’t treat students fairly if one student can earn a higher grade than another without earning it. Furthermore, colleges can risk their reputation, their ability to recruit students, their funding, and even their accreditation to confer degrees if they allow students to receive credits without earning them.

5) Intellectual Property

Aside from the rules and expectations particular to academic work, it’s important to keep in mind that published content is almost always owned by someone else–generally either the author of that work or the company that published it. Taking that content without permission or attribution is therefore an act of theft, in both the moral and legal sense of the term. The legal concerns raised by misusing intellectual property may not seem all that important for work you complete in your academic work, but many Carleton students write and communicate for their classes in ways that are also visible to the public. This means that, under some circumstances, plagiarism could open students, and even the college, to legal liability for the theft of someone else’s intellectual property Furthermore, all students will eventually leave the college and go out into the wider public world. When you do, if you don’t have a thorough understanding of how plagiarism works and how you can avoid it, you put yourself at risk for significant professional legal consequences.

Thinking Like a Scholar: Why You Should Care About Plagiarism

Understanding these principles can help your scholarly work in two ways:

First, it can help you think more consciously about the purpose of your assignments and the way that might affect your use and documentation of sources. To practice this, you might try looking at some of the sample scenarios provided here and think about how the principles above make the student’s conduct appropriate or inappropriate.

More importantly, though, understanding the principles above can help you understand why plagiarism matters in academic writing and how the general idea of using your sources ethically should shape the way you approach your academic work. In other words, it will help you approach your work like a scholar who is actively contributing to the academic conversations around you, instead of simply approaching each assignment as a student completing a series of mandatory tasks.

When you think of your academic work this way, it takes on greater meaning and purpose.  Avoiding plagiarism helps you to take pride in your work, your voice, and your contribution to the sum of human knowledge.