The word plagiarism just sounds bad, doesn’t it? Like a skin disease or an ancient legal tactic used by the merchant class during the Middle Ages. For high school and college students, the word seems to conjure fear more than anything else.

Plagiarism is often defined as using someone else’s words or ideas without proper attribution. In this day and age, this definition often gets expanded to include using someone else’s image or video and trying to pass it off as if you created it. The current digital world we live in certainly makes copying, pasting, and inserting extremely easy. And there in lies some of the problem, which I will discuss later.

Whatever the social norms are for informal sharing of information, there are different standards when it comes to academic writing, that is, writing that is assigned, created, and submitted in academic settings. I know from teaching first-year college students for the last 20 years that bad writing habits in high school can lead to the same bad writing habits in college. But the consequences for plagiarism in college can be much stiffer and longer lasting. This is why I am enlisting parents and students to help me spread the word about plagiarism and how to avoid it.

Intentional or unintentional, it may not matter.

Now that I have defined plagiarism, let me talk about intentional or unintentional because that is often the first words out of a student’s mouth when someone tells them their paper is plagiarized: “I didn’t meant to do it!” Many colleges and universities do not take into consideration intent; others do when determining what the penalty will be.

TIP: Carefully read the institution’s policy on plagiarism, or the broader academic integrity policy. My institution has a clear policy for plagiarism as well as for cheating and fabrication.

Yes, you can plagiarize yourself.

A common question I get from students is “Can I plagiarize myself?” The confusion comes from the narrowness in the definition of using someone else’s words, ideas, images, or other intellectual property. Many colleges and universities strictly prohibit self-plagiarism, or what they often call recycling, which is the use of a whole or part of a paper or assignment in two or more courses. Some students argue that recycling their own papers should be considered effective time management. Professors argue, however, that it is cheating the system and the student out of the opportunity to learn and grow from the assignments.

TIP: Avoid using parts or whole papers or assignments that were submitted previously, even if done so at different institutions. If you feel you must use what you have written before, you will need to be granted permission from both faculty to do so to avoid a charge of recycling.

How can you avoid plagiarism in the first place?

The most common reason my students say they have plagiarized is because they procrastinated and ended up desperately looking for shortcuts to the assignment. This often led them down a path of purchasing a paper off the internet, getting a friend to write the paper, or copying and pasting from websites to meet that minimum page limit. Some also point to bad habits from high school that they got away with as reasons they plagiarize in college: They use sources without properly attributing them to the original source, or leave off quotation marks around word-for-word passages. Lack of planning and sloppiness are not good excuses for college classes.

TIP: Prepare for assignments by breaking down them into smaller parts and that can be scheduled over days or weeks. Leave time for checking your use of sources and asking for help from the professor or the writing center should you be confused as to how to cite sources properly.

The transition from high school to college can be challenging and understanding the expectations of academic writing is just one way students need to make that transition successfully. The consequences of not making that transition can be much more severe: students can fail an assignment, fail a class, or get expelled, in extreme cases, from a college or university for plagiarism. Knowing what plagiarism is and how to avoid it, though, can give your student a firmer foundation.

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