The scenarios below illustrate some of the most common situations students find themselves in with regards to plagiarism, academic integrity, and misuse of sources. Clicking on any scenario below will reveal a short analysis that connects that scenario to the general principles and best practices detailed elsewhere on this site.
The analysis provided here reflects the most common rules and practices in academic coursework, but it’s possible that a given instructor might approach similar situations differently in their courses. Therefore, you should keep the most fundamental lesson of this site in mind as you read these scenarios: The specific rules governing plagiarism and the use of sources vary from one situation to the next. As a student, it’s your responsibility to know your instructors’ expectations regarding the use of sources, and to ask for clarification any time you’re uncertain.
1. General Use of Sources
A student in a literature course is working on an analysis of the depiction of gender in Shakespeare’s King Lear. The student has some difficulty getting started, so they go to a website that offers “sample essays,” and read several essays that analyze King Lear in a variety of different ways. When the student proceeds to write their paper, they include several points and observations they read in the sample essays.
In retrospect, the student can’t recall which ideas came from which sample essay, and everything is written in the student’s own words, so they decide not to cite the sample essays in the final draft of the essay.
Analysis: This student has committed plagiarism.
Though it’s entirely possible that this student had perfectly innocent intentions when they chose to review sample essays on the topic they intended to write about, in the end they knowingly submitted a paper in which part of the intellectual work was done by someone else, and they didn’t cite these sources to make that contribution visible. It doesn’t matter that the student put the ideas from the sample essays into their own words; the fact remains that the student took credit for someone else’s ideas, and that’s plagiarism.
Students in a Math class are assigned to complete a certain number of problems out of the textbook for each class session. One week, a student is working on their homework the night before it’s due, and they get stuck on a problem halfway through.
Since it’s too late to go to the Math Skills Center or even to ask a classmate for help, the student finds a site online that posts solutions to problems in college textbooks. Using this site, the student is able to see a solved version of the problem they were stuck on, and this allows them to figure out what they were doing wrong.
It’s now very late, and the student feels that they have achieved the purpose of this minor homework assignment (i.e. they now understand the core concept behind these problems). So, the student copies the solutions for all the remaining homework problems. The next day in class, they submit the problem set to their instructor, as usual.
Analysis: This student has most likely committed plagiarism.
This student took credit for someone else’s intellectual efforts: they did not solve the homework problems themselves, but they led their instructor to believe that they had. This student may feel that they learned what they were meant to learn from the exercise, but that doesn’t entitle them to commit academic dishonesty or to circumvent part of the work that will determine their course grade.
Furthermore, it’s irrelevant that the assignment in question was “just” a routine homework assignment, since the principles that define plagiarism apply just as much to small-scale assignments as they do to large essays and projects. Any time you present someone else’s intellectual labor as your own, you commit plagiarism, and you risk the penalties associated with plagiarism, regardless of the value of the assignment.
The only way this would be acceptable would be if the student’s instructor explicitly told students that it was okay to consult answer sets for their homework. As we note many times on this site, different instructors have different standards, and sometimes instructors genuinely don’t care if students receive this kind of assistance on homework assignments. You should never assume this, though.
A student in an Educational Studies class is working on a literature review summarizing different approaches to cultivating diversity in higher education. The student happened to write an essay on this subject in a previous class, and so they copy the majority of their previous essay into a new document, modify a few details to fit the current assignment, and submit it to their instructor without mentioning that most of the text came from a previously completed essay.
Analysis: This student has almost certainly committed plagiarism.
It doesn’t matter that the text was originally written by this student, because it does not represent the student’s intellectual work for this assignment. By submitting work that was originally written for a previous course, the student has defeated the purpose of the current assignment—to learn more about the approaches to diversity in higher ed.The only way this reuse of old writing would be acceptable would be if the student received explicit approval from their instructor before they submitted the assignment. Instructors will sometimes allow this kind of repurposing, but students should never assume that this is acceptable and do it without asking the instructor.
2. Citations and Paraphrasing
Students in a Sociology class are assigned to write short weekly papers in response to the course reading. These papers are individually written, but two students in the class, Student O and Student P, get together each week to discuss the readings and brainstorm ideas.
One week, Student O falls behind on the reading, and so they ask Student P to summarize it for them and describe what they plan to write their response paper about. Student O writes their own paper based on this conversation, which allows them to skip the reading for that week and catch up on their other homework.
Analysis: Student O has definitely committed plagiarism, and Student P may have committed an academic integrity violation as well.
It wasn’t necessarily wrong for these students to meet outside of class to discuss the reading and share ideas about their essays, as long as both students were contributing ideas equally and making an effort to write papers that reflected their own ideas and work.
In this case, though, Student O used Student P’s work in place of their own. It doesn’t matter that Student P technically hadn’t written the essay yet or that the ideas Student M used came out of an oral conversation, not a written text. The fact is that Student O wrote an essay based on Student P’s reading and ideas but presented it as their own work, and that’s plagiarism.
Furthermore, if Student P knowingly helped Student O to claim credit for work they didn’t do, then Student P also committed an academic integrity violation and could face penalties as well. In effect, this would be no different than allowing Student O to copy their answers on an exam.
Students in a Psychology class are tasked with creating an experimental design. This is a group assignment, and students are allowed to form their own groups outside of class. Three of them, Student A, Student B, and Student C, decide to work together and agree to meet in the library to work out their design.
While this group is meeting, Student D, who is also in the class, comes by and joins the group’s conversation. Over the next hour, Student D contributes several ideas to the group’s design. However, Student D has already completed the assignment with another group, so when Students A, B, and C turn in their assignment the next day, they only put their own names on it and do not mention Student D.
Students A, B, and C have committed an academic integrity violation, and Student D probably has as well.
It’s entirely possible that Students A, B, and C didn’t think they were doing anything wrong here–after all, they didn’t invite Student D to join their group; Student D just happened to see them in the library and join their conversation. However, the students’ intentions don’t change the facts of the situation. Student D contributed to their project, and by turning in the assignment without acknowledging Student D’s contribution, Students A, B, and C took credit for Student D’s work.
Furthermore, if Student D knew that his classmates intended to submit their assignment without acknowledging their assistance, then Student D has also committed an academic integrity violation. They may have seen this as nothing more than a friendly conversation between classmates, but as soon as it became clear that Students A, B, and C were actually working on an assignment, Student D should have left, or Students A, B, and C should have asked Student D to leave so they could complete the assignment on their own.
Three students in a Classics course, Student L, Student M, and Student N, are completing a collaborative essay on Silk Road trading in the Fourth Century. Each student writes a section of the essay, which they compile on a Google Doc and revise together.
For their section, Student L copies several paragraphs from an online article, which they paste into their work without citing their source or informing Student M or Student N.
Once all three group members have uploaded their sections, the group members revise and edit the essay together and submit it to their instructor. The assignment did not require the student to indicate which of them wrote which sections, so the entire assignment is submitted under all three students’ names.
Analysis: Student L has definitely committed plagiarism.
Student M and Student N have also committed plagiarism, even though they didn’t intend to.
The issue with Student L is obvious–by taking text from another author without crediting it, they presented someone else’s work as their own.
Student M and Student N are in a more complicated position. Strictly speaking, they didn’t know that part of Student L’s section was written by someone else, and thus they did not knowingly commit plagiarism. Nevertheless, they did technically take credit for someone else’s work by submitting an assignment that was partially plagiarized. This means that, at the very least, Student M and Student N might be called upon to prove that they didn’t know what Student L was doing, which might be difficult if Student L isn’t willing to take full responsibility for their actions. If they couldn’t prove their innocence, it’s possible that Student M and Student N would face the same consequences as Student L.
As this scenario illustrates, it’s important for every member of a group to keep track of how sources are used throughout a project and to make sure their group members are maintaining academic honesty. When you put your name on an assignment and submit it, you take responsibility for the entire content of that paper, even the parts that were written by your collaborators.
Four students in a Biology class are assigned to gather experimental data and write a collaborative lab report. One of the students, Student J, does very little work in the lab, mostly watching while his group members run the experiment and record the data.
When it comes time to write the lab report, Student J agrees to write the methods section, but when the deadline that the group sets for themselves rolls around, Student J only has a vague outline completed. Not wanting the assignment to be late, the other students in the group complete the methods section themselves.
The group revises and edits the whole document together, though Student J doesn’t contribute significantly to this process, either. When the report is complete, the group submits to the instructor with all group members credited equally.
Analysis: Student J did not treat their group members fairly, but they probably did not commit plagiarism.
In a collaborative project, it’s ultimately the collaborators’ responsibility to divide the labor up in a way that everyone can live with. When people don’t fulfill their assigned duties, the responsibility falls on the other group members to deal with that as well. If the students in this group felt that Student J wasn’t doing their share of the work, they should have found a way to take that up with Student J directly or asked their instructor to step in. Either way, though, they would need to address this before they turned in the final version of the document. Since they didn’t do that, and since Student J did contribute something to the final project (no matter how slight that contribution may have been), then it’s not technically plagiarism for Student J to claim credit for the assignment alongside their group members.
There is one important qualification to this, though. Sometimes, when instructors assign group projects, they will explicitly stipulate how much work each group member must do (e.g. “each student is responsible for writing one section of the final document”), or they will require students to describe in detail what each group member contributed to the final product. If that were the case in this scenario, the students would be obligated to point out that Student J did not complete their portion of the work, and failure to do so would constitute academic dishonesty (though not technically plagiarism).
Two students in a Psychology class are conducting an empirical investigation for a final paper/project, which the professor has agreed will be written jointly.
Student A really enjoys statistics, so they volunteer to do all of the data analysis and write up the results section of the paper. Student B is less of a stats fan, so they volunteer to find and read more of the background literature and draft the introduction section of the paper.
The students agree to both work on the method section and the discussion section together. Moreover, each one reads and comments on the other’s drafted sections before they turn in the final version of the paper together.
Analysis: These students have not committed plagiarism.
Since this was a collaborative assignment, there’s nothing inherently wrong with dividing up the labor according to each collaborator’s interests and abilities. In professional scholarship, collaborative papers are typically written in just this way, and as long as each student does some of the writing and has the opportunity to comment/edit all sections, this is a perfectly fine way to approach the project.
A student in a Geology course is working on a lab report. The assignment calls for an extensive Discussion section in which the student is expected to choose a few articles from the course reading and connect them to the data from their experiment. The student has never written this kind of report before, and isn’t sure what articles they should use or how they should cite them. Fortunately, one of their roommates took the same course the previous year and completed the same assignment. With the roommate’s permission, the student reads over their roommate’s Discussion section. When the student writes their own report, they cite the exact same sources that their roommate used, but they connect them to their results in their own words.
This student has committed plagiarism, and the student’s roommate has probably committed an academic integrity violation as well.
Choosing and citing secondary sources was part of the intellectual work for this assignment. In this case, though, the student used their roommate’s lab report as a kind of map, which allowed them to avoid this part of the assignment by simply using the sources that the roommate had already chosen. Thus, the student used their roommate’s intellectual work, but presented it as their own.
Furthermore, by providing their old lab report for the student to use, the roommate enabled the student to commit plagiarism, which is also an academic integrity violation. There are many ways the roommate could have helped this student without doing part of their work for them; providing the student with a completed version oof the very assignment they were working on was not an appropriate form of assistance.
4. Using Code
A student is working on their final project in a Computer Science course and encounters a coding problem that they’re not sure how to solve. After a bit of internet research, the student finds a solution to the question on stackoverflow.com. The student copies the solution into their program without citation and submits it to the instructor.
Analysis: This student may have committed plagiarism.
As we noted elsewhere in this guide, the rules for when you can use and how you should cite code written by someone else vary significantly, depending on the course and the assignment. The short answer is that, just to be safe, you should always treat code as an outside source that needs to be cited, unless your instructor explicitly says otherwise
Another student in a Computer Science class is working on their final coding project for the term. The student has been struggling all term, and they don’t believe they’ll be able to complete the project on time.
Desperate, they go to a freelancing site and use the assignment guidelines to write a job ad for a freelance programmer. Receiving a quick response, the student hires a freelancer to complete the project for them, then submits the freelancer’s program as their own.
Analysis: Desperate or not, this student has certainly committed plagiarism.
Not much analysis should be required here–hiring someone else to do your college coursework for you is the very definition of an academic integrity violation. The noteworthy thing about this case is the feeling of desperation that drove the student to such a poor decision.
It’s worth remembering that we often make our worst errors in judgment when we’re under significant pressure, since pressure and anxiety make it easier to convince ourselves that we have no better alternatives. In reality, though, this student might face much more significant penalties than failing a single class, possibly including suspension or expulsion.
A much better alternative would be for the student to discuss their problems in the course with their professor and/or an academic counselor or class dean. If the student was really that far behind, it’s possible that none of these people will be able to help the student get the grade they want in this class, but they might be able to help the student assess their situation more rationally and find a viable path for success in future terms.
5. Data, Charts, and Visual Resources
While writing her comps paper, a student finds a graph in an article they are reading that perfectly captures an important idea in their literature review. The student “snips” the graph and pastes it into their paper, citing the source in the note section below the graph.
Analysis: This student has not technically committed plagiarism, but their use of another scholar’s graph is problematic.
For professional scholarship in most disciplines, a graph is generally viewed as too large a contribution to “quote,” even with attribution, without the author/copyright holder’s written consent. Since graphs and data visualizations represent the culmination of a significant amount of intellectual labor, using someone else’s graph is, in effect, the same as quoting several pages of another author’s text: even if you give the original author their due credit, you’re simply using too much of their work to do so without asking the author directly.
However, in some departments at Carleton, it is acceptable to use a graph in your comps project with the understanding that comps is a work in progress. The time available for you to complete your project is simply too short for you to ask authors individually for permission to reproduce their graphs, and so your department might accept a project with a reproduced draft (assuming you clearly cited the original author). But this practice isn’t acceptable in every department, and it’s not always acceptable outside of a comps project. So, once again, the best practice is to ask your instructor or advisor what practices you’re expected to follow.
A student in a lab course makes a mistake in their procedure that invalidates all the data they gathered from an experiment. The student quickly realizes what they did wrong and how the experiment should have gone.
Not wanting to write a lab report based on flawed data, the student copies the data from a friend in another lab section, whose experiment went the way it should have. Using this data, the student writes their own lab report and submits it.
Analysis: This student has committed plagiarism.
It’s easy to see, from the student’s point of view, why this might have seemed acceptable. After all, the student knows what their data “should” have looked like, and they wrote the lab report themselves, even if the data they used wasn’t technically from their own experiment. However, this logic only holds if the student assumes that the purpose of the assignment was to get the “right” result and that the intellectual work involved in running the experiment and recording the data don’t count.
This is not the case, though. Running the experiment was part of the assignment, and it was the student’s responsibility to record their own data accurately and analyze their own results, whatever they may be. Thus, by using someone else’s data, this student took credit for someone else’s work and defeated the purpose of the assignment.
A student in another lab course is running an experiment that requires them to monitor a reaction and record data every fifteen minutes. The student also has a Calculus exam coming up, and so they use the time between recordings to study. As the lab goes on, the student gets distracted by their Calculus and forgets to record several data points.
Since the data is fairly linear and the experiment otherwise went as expected, the student can easily calculate what the results should have been at each of the points they skipped. Using these calculations, the student fills in the missing data and submits their lab report.
Analysis: This student has not technically plagiarized, but they have committed an academic integrity violation.
The term plagiarism doesn’t apply to this scenario, since the student is not taking credit for another person’s work (or for their own work in a different course). However, the student is certainly taking credit for work they did not do. Their assigned task was to record a specific set of data points, but they failed to do that, and by presenting calculated results in place of observed data, they have misrepresented the extent to which they completed this assignment. This is an an academic integrity violation, and the student could face significant penalties for it.