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Plagiarism & Copyright


Copyright and plagiarism are different.  Copyright is a legal issue, whereas plagiarism is just an ethical issue.  Copyright laws vary from country to country; the following is a description of U.S. copyright laws. 

Copyright in the United States is automatic!  Anything anyone writes is automatically copyrighted.  It is not even necessary to put the copyright symbol, ©, in the document.  This is true for all countries adhering to the Berne Convention.  Inserting the copyright symbol in a document, followed by the date and your name, makes it easier to win a copyright infringement suit, however see for more details. 

Note that many things besides text are copyrighted.  This includes music, movies, videos, pictures, drawings, graphs & figures, tables, etc.  The fact that graphs, drawings, pictures, figures, & tables are copyrighted is of particular interest to academic writers.

Fair Use

The fair use doctrine allows one to make limited use of copyrighted material without first obtaining permission from the author.  The following section from U.S. copyright law is quoted from a Wikipedia article on fair use, :

17 U.S.C. § 107

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 17 U.S.C. § 106 and 17 U.S.C. § 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

Read Patricia Kirkwood’s guide to fair use, referenced below, for more details.

Additional References on Copyright & Fair Use

A guide to fair use, by Patricia Kirkwood  -

A guide to fair use, by the American Library Association  -

A guide to copyright, by Patricia Kirkwood  -

A guide to copyright in theses & dissertations, by ProQuest  -


Plagiarism is an ethical issue rather than a legal one.  Although plagiarism is not a legal issue, it can nevertheless bring about great loss.  Lying is not a legal issue, but it can cause great loss.  Plagiarism can result in an F in a course.  Plagiarism can also result in one’s M.S. or Ph.D. degree being revoked!  Faculty members have been fired for plagiarism.

A person is guilty of plagiarism whenever he or she leaves the impression that someone else’s work is his or her own.  Plagiarism is basically a form of dishonesty.  There are three main types of plagiarism. 

  1. Giving the impression that someone else’s ideas or data are your own
  2. Giving the impression that someone else’s words are your own
  3. Giving the impression that someone else’s drawing, picture, table, etc. is your own

Notice that copyright does not include ideas, only words, but plagiarism includes both.

Whenever you use someone else’s ideas or data, someone else’s words, or someone else’s drawing, picture, etc, you must cite the source of the work.  A proper citation for someone else’s ideas, data, orwords must include the following elements:

  1. A reference number in square brackets immediately after the text. (Square brackets are IEEE style.)  The number references a complete citation in the bibliography.
  2. A complete citation in the bibliography, using IEEE citation rules .
  3. Quotation marks are required if someone else’s words are being used.  Alternatively, a long block of quoted text may have indented margins.

If you are using another writer’s words, not just his ideas, then his words must be put in quotes.  The first two of the items listed above are required, and quotation marks are required as well.  If you do everything else required, but omit the quotation marks, you will still be guilty of plagiarism!  It will be plagiarism because it will still look like you are using your own words.  Only the quotation marks tell the reader that you are using someone else’s actual words, instead of just his ideas. 

The reference number for a table, picture, drawing, etc. is usually placed at the end of the caption.  It must reference a complete citation in the bibliography.  The citation for a picture, drawing, etc. may also be placed directly below the picture.


If you use someone else’s ideas, but not his words, then you are paraphrasing him.  The introductory chapters of a thesis often contain a lot of paraphrased information.  Term papers assigned in classes also often contain much paraphrased material.  A graduate student begins his or her thesis research by going to the library and reading all that he or she can find on the thesis topic.  Much of this information will have to be included in the introductory chapters of the thesis. 

When a graduate student attempts to paraphrase something he has read, he will often find that he cannot say it nearly as well as it was said by the source.  Often, the student is not as talented a writer.  If pressed for time or unable to effectively paraphrase, the student may be tempted to copy entire paragraphs from the source.  This is plagiarism, unless the student encloses the language in quotation marks and provides proper attribution.

Because frequent use of large blocks of quoted material is discouraged in theses, dissertations, journal articles, etc., the student will usually attempt to paraphrase the material instead of quoting it.  There is a right way and a very wrong way to paraphrase.  The wrong way almost always produces something called patch-writing.  Let’s begin by looking at the wrong way.

The wrong way of paraphrasing is to write the paraphrase while you are looking at the source material.  When you do this, you will almost always end up copying large patches of sentences, or even multiple sentences in a row, from the source.  Even if you change some words, or rearrange words somewhat, this is unacceptable.  A composition scholar has dubbed this patch-writing, because it contains patches of the original source embedded within it.  It is still plagiarism.  Several Engineering graduate students were given F’s recently in an Engineering graduate course for doing patch-writing! 

A good way to paraphrase is as follows.  The steps below are based on an explanation given to me by Bob Haslam, the director of the University of Arkansas Quality Writing Center.

  1. Study the original until you understand it.
  2. Make very brief notes on a piece of paper of the facts you want to include in your paraphrase, just enough to jog your memory.  Use your own words.  Also note any words from the original that you will need to use in the paraphrase.
  3. Put away the original, and write a paraphrase using your notes.  If possible, wait at least a few minutes before writing the paraphrase.  Don’t put much effort into writing polished English.  Write a crude paraphrase quickly.  The purpose of this step is to get a starting point that is your own.
  4. Go back and polish your paraphrase using the paraphrase you just wrote as your starting point.  Do not look at the original.
  5. Now look at the original.  Check the following points: (1) Is your paraphrase accurate? (2) Does it have a slant, or argumentative tone that the original did not have? (3) Did you use fresh word choices, or are there too many words recycled from the original passage? (4) Did you use your own fresh sentence structure, or is yours the same as the original?
  6.  Make sure you included a formal reference to the bibliography, and record the source for your bibliography.

Bob emphasizes that students must avoid patch-writing.  This is writing that has short patches of the original interspersed in it.  He says that a student will almost always do patch writing if he is looking at the source while writing the paraphrase.  Although the process must begin by carefully reading the source, as the steps above indicate, the student must close the source while drafting the paraphrase to successfully avoid repeating the author’s choice of sentence structures and word choices.  Bob emphasizes that two things must be different from the original to avoid plagiarism:

  1. The words used must be different from the original.
  2.  The sentence structures must be different.  If the sentences from an original passage and a successful paraphrase were diagrammed and analyzed grammatically, there would be differences.

Again, he says that this is unlikely to happen if the student looks at the original while writing the paraphrase.

For more about patch-writing, consult pages 271-275 of Writing Matters, by Rebecca Moore Howard, the author and scholar who coined the term. [1]

A Quick Quiz

A brief quiz on plagiarism can be found at Plagiarism Quiz Flash File

Common Knowledge

Some information is common knowledge; you do not need to cite where you learned it.  You do not need to cite where you learned Ohm’s law, or Kirchoff’s voltage law, for instance.  It may sometimes be difficult to determine whether something is common knowledge.  Several rules for deciding whether something is common knowledge can be found at .  This site lists the following rules:

  1. Did you know it without looking it up?
  2. Do lots of other people know it without looking it up?
  3. Can you find it in many published locations? (3-5)


Paraphrase the following paragraph.

Do you find the information in many PUBLISHED (not web pages) resources? Some experts say if you find it in 3 places, no need to cite. Others say 5. If you don't have time to check that the information has been used in many different places, cite it. Play it safe. The citation can be easily removed later and until the paper is in its final version, you will know where to go back and verify the information.


[1] R.M. Howard. Writing matters: A handbook for writing and research. New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2010, pp. 271-75.