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Online Plagiarism: What it Is, and What the Consequences Are

Dec 9, 2009 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Education.org Columnist | 0 Comments

While many people think plagiarism is more prevalent in the online classroom than at a traditional school, this may not be true. However, some degree of plagiarism takes place in many different educational settings—despite educators’ attempts to stamp them out.

No matter what type of school you attend, it’s important to know the definition of plagiarism. The more you know about it, the easier it will be for you to avoid doing it by mistake.

What is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism isn’t just copying someone else’s writing word-for-word, or passing off someone else’s ideas as your own—although those could both be referred to as plagiarism. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary’s definition as well as Plagiarism.org, you may be guilty of plagiarizing if you have done any of the following:

  • Paraphrased someone else’s ideas or words without giving credit.
  • Writing out a verbatim quotation without using quotation marks.
  • Citing a source incorrectly.
  • Making some changes to words, but keeping the sentence structure of someone else’s writing.
  • Using so many ideas or words from a single source that they make up the majority of your paper, whether or not you provide citations.


Some students believe the ideas of “common knowledge” or “fair use” will protect them from accusations of plagiarism. While these can be defenses, you have to know exactly  under what conditions you’re protected.

The common knowledge defense states that some concepts are common knowledge in a professional setting—and thus you shouldn’t have to cite a particular source for them. But in order to know whether that defense is valid, you have to know whether that’s true for you in particular. Did you already know the information in question before starting your research? If not—and if you’re ever in doubt—provide a citation.

Fair use refers to a law that allows people to use others’ writings and other creative output under certain circumstances. Quotations of a short length for the purposes of clarifying your argument are considered fair use, but quoting or copying whole pages of someone else’s work aren’t.

How do I Avoid Plagiarism?

Many cases of plagiarism are caused by students not citing sources when they should. When you’re in doubt—about any type of information—you should cite the source in the style your professor expects. Having too many citations may land you a worse grade—but an accusation of plagiarism can be much more damaging to your educational career. If you have any doubt about whether something could be considered plagiarism, cite it.

It’s also crucial to know what to cite—and how. Make sure you have a style guide of the kind your school follows. This will provide you rules for citing magazine articles, books, Internet sources, interviews and other sources correctly.  In addition, be sure your notes are careful and thorough—so you can keep track of what information you got from which source.

What Happens if I Plagiarize a Paper?

The consequences of plagiarism depend on the discretion of your online school. If this isn’t the first time you were caught plagiarizing, this may have an effect on your consequences—as well as whether you do or don’t admit your guilt. Generally, the possible outcomes include:

A failing grade - Depending on the severity of your offense, you may get a failing grade on the paper or the entire course.

Suspension - It’s possible that, after formal charges are brought against you through the academic system, you could be suspended for the semester.

It goes on your record - Plagiarism is not a criminal offense, but it can still do some damage if it’s on your academic record. If a permanent record of plagiarism is put on your transcript, you won’t be able to get into graduate school or land a job with the government.

Your degree is revoked - In the most severe of cases—usually when the student denies guilt—a formal investigation will begin. If that investigation finds you’re guilty, you may have your entire degree revoked. In general, the consequences are much heavier when you do not admit guilt.

If you’re  having trouble with a paper, it’s much better to earn a bad grade than to be caught plagiarizing. And it might be easier than ever to plagiarize online—but it’s also easier than ever for professors to catch you using Google, CopyScape, and other online tools. The lesson here? Don’t plagiarize—or you’re likely to regret it.

Plagiarism: Your Writing, Not Someone Else's - Youtube.com


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