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Academic Integrity and Plagiarism: What is Plagiarism?

A guide for helping students understand and avoid plagiarism.

Defining Plagiarism

 It's About Being Honest...

Plagiarism is the action or practice of taking someone else's ideas, works, or words and  passing them off as if they were your own (Oxford English Dictionary). This doesn't mean you can't build off the ideas of others. In fact, being a successful college student requires you to back up your claims using preexisting research and ideas. However, you must be able to distinguish between your ideas and the ideas of others. 

It Isn't Always Intentional...

Sometimes plagiarism offenses are not intentional attempts at deception. It's important to distinguish between intentional cheating (which is an ethical mistake) and misusing sources (which is a learning error), but you should be aware that both can result in the same consequences. 

It Depends on the Context...

Appropriation in art and music is common, but the situation is different for academic work. In Western culture especially, academic work (the writings and ideas of scholars and researchers) is a source of income and livelihood and thus plagiarism is treated more seriously. Academic work is also often compared to "a conversation" and so citations help us track the path of that conversation.

Real Life Example: Kaavya Viswanathan

In 2006, Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan published a novel that contained several passages remarkably similar to two books by Megan McCafferty. You can compare examples on the Harvard Crimson website. In the end, her publisher revoked her $500,000 book deal and an alleged Dreamworks film opportunity was also lost.

(image source: AP/Chitose Suzuki)

Real Life Example: Jonah Leher

In 2012, it was discovered that journalist and best-selling author, Jonah Leher, had self-plagiarized a recently published New Yorker article. It quickly become obvious that this was not the first time Leher has re-used his own writing in other works. Two months later, Leher resigned from the New Yorker staff.

(image source: The Guardian)

Real Life Example: Senator John Walsh

In 2014, the Army War College rescinded the Master’s Degree of Senator John Walsh, a retired colonel in the National Guard, after the New York Times revealed that he plagiarized his thesis from various online sources. At the time, Walsh was running for a U.S. Senate seat. He withdrew from the race. 

(image source: Wikipedia)


The academic sanctions for plagiarism, whether intentional or unintentional, can range from failing the assignment to failing the course and, in extreme cases, can ultimately result in expulsion from Whittier College. As our General Policy for Academic Honesty states, "Ignorance of what constitutes plagiarism or cheating is not a valid defense." So it is important to familiarize yourself with this research guide and the college's position on plagiarism. When in doubt, ask your professor, contact a writing tutor in CAAS, or speak with a librarian.

(image source: mellyjean on flickr, cc by-sa-nd)