Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

What Is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is usually defined as a discrete offense, a specific failure to give credit to a particular source. But it actually raises a much more fundamental question for writers: “Where is my voice in this project?” Seen in this light, the strategies that help you avoid plagiarism can also be strategies that help you gain power as a writer. Once your guiding question about your relationship to sources is “Where is my voice?” you are well on your way to using sources in an effective and legitimate way.

Plagiarism is the use of another’s work, words, or ideas without attribution. The word “plagiarism” comes from the Latin word for “kidnapper” and is considered a form of theft, a breach of honesty in the academic community. Plagiarizers suffer serious consequences in Yale College—including suspension or expulsion from school. (See the Yale College Undergraduate Regulations for more information.)

But beyond the risk of penalties, there are urgent moral and intellectual reasons to avoid plagiarism. When you write for an academic audience, you’re joining an ongoing conversation. When you plagiarize, you join that conversation on false grounds, representing yourself as someone you are not. What is more, the act of stealing another’s words or ideas erases your voice. It may be difficult to think of yourself as making an original contribution in the context of a class taught by an expert. But every assignment is an invitation to add something new to the conversation sparked by the course. You cannot make an original contribution if you are not the owner of the words and ideas that you present.

Plagiarism takes many forms, but it falls into three main categories: using a source’s language without quoting, using information from a source without attribution, and paraphrasing a source in a form that stays too close to the original. There are variations on these categories that you may not be familiar with, so see the Warning section for a fuller discussion of the rules and see the Fair Paraphrase section for a discussion of how to use a source’s idea in your own argument.

You must always make clear in your written work where you have borrowed from others—whether data, opinions, questions, ideas, or specific language. This obligation holds whether the sources are published or unpublished and whether they are in print or on the Internet. When in doubt, be sure to check with your instructor about how to acknowledge sources in your papers, especially since every academic discipline has its own conventions.