Plagiarism – What Is It?

Andra J. Hutchins Andra J. Hutchins, Higher Education Matters

All colleges and universities have codes of conduct that include some variation of an academic honor or integrity code. These policies codify the school’s definition of cheating and plagiarism – two areas where students can often find themselves in trouble. Plagiarism, especially, seems to cause confusion with students.

We all believe we know what plagiarism is, but many students are surprised when they are accused of plagiarism by their colleges. They (and their parents) think that plagiarism means directly copying word for word from another’s work, or purchasing a paper using the internet, or handing in somebody else’s paper and passing it off as one’s own. Those are all descriptions of plagiarism, yes, but the definition is far broader. The dictionary definition of plagiarism is “to use the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own words or ideas” (Merriam-Webster). However, here are some area colleges’ definitions:

Boston University’s Academic Conduct Code states the following with regard to plagiarism: “Plagiarism. Representing the work or ideas of another as one’s own; and/or using another’s work or ideas without crediting the source. Plagiarism includes, but is not limited to, the following: copying the answers of another student on an examination; copying or restating the work or ideas of another person or persons in any oral or written work (printed or electronic) without citing the appropriate source; using audio or video footage that comes from another source (including work done by another student) without permission and/or acknowledgement of that source; and collaborating with someone else in an academic endeavor without acknowledging their contribution. Plagiarism can consist of acts of commission (appropriating the words or ideas of another as one’s own), or omission (failing to acknowledge/document/credit the source or creator of words or ideas).” Excerpted from Boston University’s Academic Conduct Code.

The Honesty Policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst states: “PLAGIARISM is the representation of the words or ideas of another as one’s own work in any academic exercise. This includes:
• failing to properly identify direct quotations by quotation marks or appropriate indentation and formal citation
• failing to acknowledge and properly cite paraphrasing or summarizing material from another source
• failing to acknowledge and properly cite information obtained from the Internet or other electronic media as well as other sources
• submitting term papers written by another, including those obtained from commercial term paper companies or the internet …
• submitting all or substantial portions of the same work to fulfill the requirements for more than one course without the prior permission of the instructor(s), including self-plagiarism
• forging or otherwise altering grades, signatures, transcripts, course withdrawal forms, or other academic document
• illegally accessing a computer hard drive
• stealing or destroying the academic work of another, such as a computer disk, term paper, or notebook
• Unauthorized possession of, receipt of, or sale of any faculty notes or materials”
Excerpted from the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Academic Honesty Policy p. 12

At almost every, if not every, college, failing to cite even one line of a 15-page paper falls under the definition of plagiarism; as does paraphrasing or collaborating without proper credit. At the college level, it can become hard to distinguish between an idea that is truly your own versus one that you believe to be public knowledge versus one that you read somewhere but believe you are putting into your own words. The latter two likely need a citation. Failing to understand the difference can be a costly mistake and can result in a semester suspension at some colleges (and sometimes a year if you are not truthful about your actions or if it’s a second offense).

Every student should read the full Academic Honor Code at their college (ideally before matriculating) and understand the nuances of cheating and plagiarism. Additionally, one professor may have an enhanced definition of cheating/plagiarism that includes a prohibition on collaborating on homework. If a student has questions about whether a behavior fits under these definitions, they should ask the professor before turning in the work or seeking help from another student on an assignment.

If you or your student has been accused of plagiarism by a college, don’t try to go through the hearing process alone. Contact Attorney Andra Hutchins at 781.997.1564 or via email at