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How can plagiarism happen by accident?

Many or perhaps even most cases of plagiarism are probably accidents. But because it is difficult for markers to judge whether plagiarism is accidental or deliberate, they tend to penalise all plagiarism in the same way, whether it was intended or not. For this reason it is important to understand how accidental plagiarism can occur and to guard against it.

  • You find an essay on the internet that you think you can use, and copy or download part of it. Then you paste the material you have downloaded into the essay you submit. The problem arises when you forget to indicate a source for the pasted-in material. (Material plagiarised from the internet can in principle be easy for your marker to find, incidentally, by using a search engine to look for any unusual phrase in your essay.)
  • You take notes from a book, but when you do so, you forget to indicate in your notes that the material comes from somewhere else and is not something you thought of yourself later, when you look at your notes you think the words are your own and you just incorporate them into your essay.
  • You work with someone else on a prescribed essay topic you are both doing, and take shared notes, with the result that each of you is drawing on the same words and phrases. Then you both submit essays that look as though one is copied from the other. In this case, you should protect yourself by indicating in the essay when ideas and words come from a shared discussion or from a process of collaborative research.

There are other varieties of ‘accidental plagiarism’ besides these, but they all arise in broadly the same way. There is some kind of  separation between taking notes and writing the essay, and when you took the notes you failed to indicate clearly which words or ideas came from someone else; then by the time you write the essay you have forgotten.

To guard against accidental plagiarism that can arise when taking notes or downloading material:

  • Always mark direct quotations by putting the material in quotation marks and keep a note of the source. Anything more than a word that you copy should be noted in this way.
  • Clearly indicate in your notes when an idea comes from or is even inspired by someone else. This will actually improve the overall quality of your work, and may get you a better mark because it indicates that you are developing your ideas in relation to other people’s ideas, as academic work is supposed to.
  • Distinguish clearly between paraphrase and quotation when you write your essay. If you paraphrase, try to rewrite completely, rather than embedding fragments of the original text in your new sentences.

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