Plagiarism is a very serious charge. It is also an unpleasant and confusing issue. It is unpleasant because the penalties are severe and even raising the issue seems almost tantamount to an accusation that you may not know better. It is confusing because standards of plagiarism vary. Academic writing has more strict standards than the business world or government. For example, according to the article "Britain Admits That Much of Its Report on Iraq Came From Magazines" (New York Times, Feb. 8, 2003), the recent report issued by the British government, "Iraq: Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception and Intimidation," lauded as "a fine paper" by Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations, was plagiarized; a British goverment spokesman defended the report as "accurate."

Plagiarism is also confusing because some of the materials I have seen distributed in high schools and even universities are inadequate and even misleading; some of the examples of proper paraphrase are abysmal. For example, while many of the suggestions on Northwestern University's website "How to Avoid Plagiarism" are helpful, it also offers examples of improper and, astonishingly, proper paraphrase of Cliff Notes (Cliff Notes should never be used, much less paraphrased, in writing a college paper). Indiana's "Plagiarism: What It is and How to Recognize and Avoid It" offers an example of acceptable paraphrase of William's Lizzie Borden which is in fact not acceptable -- the footnote appended to the end of four sentences gives no indication that all of these sentences are paraphrased. Some materials actually recommend reading a passage, then closing the book, and writing what you remember; I have talked to students who incorrectly believed that it is acceptable to copy from other sources, as long as the words are changed.

The confusion about plagiarism is compounded by statements made on these sites which exhort students not to plagiarize by appealing to a grab-bag of claims even more vague and confusing, such as stealing intellectual property, giving fair credit, devaluing other's work, and harming oneself intellectually. However valid these concerns might be, they are even more vague than plagiarism, and thus contribute little to a more precise understanding of what plagiarism is and how to avoid it.

The term plagiarism is used for a variety of violations ranging from the deliberate, verbatim copying of another's work to unintentional, close paraphrase. The purpose of this document is to clarify various forms of plagiarism, the standards that will be used, and the penalties that will be enforced. Briefly put, the standards are as follows:

1) The worst form of plagiarism is copying or paraphrasing from another source without any citation. In my courses, if a passage in your paper is similar to another source (whether a book, article, paper, or web page), and if you fail to properly cite that source, you will be given a failing grade for the entire course.

2) There are other forms of plagiarism. One example is the close paraphrase of a secondary source (book, article, or essay). Even if the source is cited, if the paraphrase is too close, or the extent of the paraphrased material is not made clear in your paper in the text or footnotes, this is may constitute plagiarism, and depending on the severity of the case, may be punished by a failing grade for the course.

3) One final defect in writing is allowing your summary of a source, properly cited, to be little more than a close paraphrase. Although unintentional, it should be avoided, since this too can lead to charges of plagiarism; you will be asked to rewrite the paper properly.

General precautions: How to avoid charges of plagiarism

Always cite all sources

The best way to avoid the charge of the most serious form of plagiarism is to always properly cite any source that you use, and to make clear what you have taken from that source.

First, you must always provide a citation for your source in a footnote.

Second, make sure that you make clear exactly what you have borrowed. It is generally assumed that a footnote refers to a single sentence; if you use . If you use a single footnote for more than a single sentence, you should usually make this clear. in in the text, when you summarize material, you should usually explicitly state that the statement you made is (for example, "Benjamin Elman has shown ..." or "Benjamin Elman has argued ...").

There are good scholarly reasons for this. As an undergraduate or graduate student, you have not done the research necessary to be an expert in, for example, the history of sixteenth-century China, nor are you expected to have such expertise. Thus if you make a statement that is not based on your own expertise on your own research but rather a secondary source, then you must explain why that is true. That is, any time you use research, citing your sources gives the reader a basis to judge your statement.

Again, not citing a source leaves you open to the charge of the most serious form of plagiarism.

Avoid secondary sources

For the purposes of my courses, you should avoid using secondary sources and, in particular, never offer summaries of others' summaries. (Please note that this is not true for all courses, or even all history courses.) Papers in my coureses should be based on your reading and analysis of primary sources. In courses on Chinese history, these are writings from Chinese sources, for example, the writings of the Chinese philosopher Wang Yangming (1472-1528). Avoid using material from the translator's introductions or from secondary historical research. In courses on critical theory, consider the assigned readings, such as the works of Wittgenstein, Austin, Derrida, or Foucault, as primary sources. Avoid using summaries or interpretations of their works, such as those by Jonathan Culler.

Finally, you should not cite dictionaries, encyclopedias, or web sites in your papers -- you should not be using them. More specifically, never include passages from encyclopedias, dictionaries, or web sites. you should never use anything more from these sources than a date or a commonly known fact (such as the works authored, or the date). But even when listing the


For quotations, you must transcribe exactly the words in the original, enclose them in quotation marks, and cite the original source in a footnote, and mark by ellipses any words omitted, and mark in brackets any explanations or interpolations you have added. For a more detailed discussion, see the Chicago Manual of Style.


When paraphrasing, you must make sure that your differs. This presents problem: want accuracy. But must change words. In many of the examples of how to avoid plagiarism, the paraphrase differs substantially from the original claims.

Avoid long paraphrases


Reading notes

When you take reading notes, make sure to either quote exactly, or that your paraphrase differs from the original. Always note the page number so that you can quickly find the page in the original.

Prevention: writing defensively

Because the charge of plagiarism is so bad, like defensive driving, a kind of defensive writing. When you quote or paraphrase, make sure you cite your source and make clear in the text and in the footnotes exactly what you have taken from your source. And ask yourself, could your worst enemy find in your paper the excuse to make a charge of plagiarism?

Examples of plagiarism

As you may be aware, recently two well-known popular historians have been charged with plagiarism -- see the Weekly Standard articles "A Historian and Her Sources: Doris Kearns Goodwin's Borrowed Materials" and "Stephen Ambrose, Copycat: The Latest Work of a Bestselling Historian Isn't All His."

In both cases, they copied entire passages with only minimal changes to the original. Worse, the first edition of Goodwin's book did not even cite the sources she copied from. Ambrose, the Weekly Standard article (above) points out, offers only "a single footnote that cites pages 21 to 27 in 'Wings of Morning' with no further explanation or credit" for six paragraphs very similar to "Wings of Morning."

Unfortunately, the issue of plagiarism is further obscured by dishonest statements made by Ambrose and Goodwin along with others, including historians, in defense of them. Goodwin, and Ambrose's publisher, offer unacceptable alibis and rationalizations for plagiarizing. Goodwin asserts that she copied from her notes, "not realiz[ing] that in some cases they constituted a close paraphrase of the original work." Although Ambrose has apologized for making "a mistake" (Kirkpatrick, "Author Admits He Lifted Lines from '95 Book"), Ambrose's publisher has disingenously claimed that all sources are properly footnoted (see the above Weekly Standard article).

Worse still is the defense of Ambrose presented on his website, "In Defense of Stephen Ambrose" (, written by Richard Jensen, emeritus professor of history, University of Illinois at Chicago. Jensen falsely asserts that "the professional rule for humanities scholars is clear: plagiarism is an attempt to deceive the reader by using a source AND by not footnoting it." To justify his claim, Jensen selectively, and misleadingly, quotes from the American Historical Association's "Statement on Plagiarism" (, stating plagiarism "is defined by the American Historical Association's (AHA) statement as: 'The expropriation of another author's text, and the presentation of it as one's own, constitutes plagiarism....The clearest abuse is the use of another's language without quotation marks and citation.'" As the use of the word "clearest" in the AHA's "Statement" suggests, there are many other forms of plagiarism described in the AHA's "Statement." Indeed, Jensen ignores the previous passage from the AHA's "Statement," which states: "Plagiarism includes more subtle and perhaps more pernicious abuses than simply expropriating the exact wording of another author without attribution. Plagiarism also includes the limited borrowing, without attribution, of another person's distinctive and significant research findings, hypotheses, theories, rhetorical strategies, or interpretations, or an extended borrowing even with attribution" (emphasis added). Then, instead of addressing the most serious examples of plagiarism in Ambrose's work (such as those cited in the above Weekly Standard articles), Jensen attacks a straw man -- examples of lesser violations in Ambroses's work -- and, applying his contrived standard limited to only the most serious of the many forms of plagiarism, Jensen falsely concludes that Ambrose never plagiarized.

Despite their protests and the apologies offered by others, both of these cases -- Ambrose and Goodwin -- are clear examples of plagiarism. As an article in the Daily Princetonian by David Robinson, "Ambrose Bestsellers Questioned for Citation Methods," points out, if Ambrose had been a tenured university professor he would have been dismissed, and if Ambrose had been a student at Princeton, he would have been expelled for one year. In my courses, plagiarism of this sort will be punished by an automatic failing grade for the course and a report to the Dean.

Penalties for plagiarism

Again, plagiarism is a very serious charge. In my courses, the following penalties will be enforced:

Copying without attribution

The worst form of plagiarism is directly copying another's writing without attribution. This includes copying from secondary sources, encyclopedias, web sites, and unpublished papers written by others. The penalty is an automatic F for the entire course. A formal report will be submitted to the Dean.

Paraphrase without attribution

Paraphrase which is similar to the original is also plagiarism. If the original source is not properly cited, the penalty is an automatic F for the entire course, and a formal report will be submitted to the Dean.

Copying without quotation marks (but with attribution)

Copying from another source without quotation marks,even if the source is cited in a footnote, is plagiarism. The penalty is an automatic F for the entire course, and a formal report will be submitted to the Dean.

Paraphrase with attribution

Paraphrase which is too similar to the original may also be plagiarism, even if the original source is cited. A lengthy paraprhase (more than a sentence or two) which are not explicitly stated to be paraphrase in the text and footnotes is also plagiarism. Depending on the severity of the case, the penalty may be to rewrite the paper, an F for the paper, or an F for the entire course, in which case a formal report will be submitted to the Dean.


"How to Avoid Plagiarism" (, Northwestern University. [Not recommended -- confusing.]

"Avoiding Plagiarism," (, UC Davis. [Not recommended].

"Plagiarism: What It is and How to Recognize and Avoid It" ( University of Indiana. [Not recommended]

"Avoiding Plagiarism," Hamilton College. ( [This is a good example of strict interpretation -- in some cases too strict, stating in one case that : "Even though the writer has substituted synonyms and cited the  source, the writer is plagiarizing because the source's sentence structure is  unchanged."]

David Robinson, "Ambrose Bestsellers Questioned for Citation Methods" (, Daily Princetonian, Monday, February 4, 2002, p. 3. [Correctly reports the standards and punishments for plagiarism.]

David D. Kirkpatrick, "Author Admits He Lifted Lines from '95 Book" (, New York Times, January 6, 2002.

American Historical Association, "Statement on Plagiarism" (

Richard Jensen, "In Defense of Stephen Ambrose" (