Do we know what we mean when we call it plagiarism?

by Andrea R. Olinger

Poor notetaking. Trouble paraphrasing. The misconception that if you paraphrase, you don’t have to cite your source. These practices, sometimes called unintentional plagiarism, have long been afflicting students and instructors. Novice students, surely, fall easily into this trap, but no expert writer worth his or her salt should be unintentionally plagiarizing. Right?

The evidence from research over the last decade or so, however, is not so orthodox. It’s hard to know if you’re accidentally plagiarizing, after all, if the experts disagree on what it looks like. Building on the findings of Miguel Roig (2001), Wendy Sutherland-Smith (2005) and others, applied linguists Diane Pecorari and Philip Shaw (2012) showed that the faculty members they interviewed “had diverse and conflicting views on what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate intertextuality [a term that refers to the use of language and ideas from other texts]; and that they…were different in terms of the sorts of factors which they weighed up in coming to their judgments” (p. 152).

One example they discussed in their article is the following sentence, taken from the master’s thesis of a biology student whose second language is English:

  • Reed (1999) reported that 50% of the mint cultures in National Clonal Germplasm Repository (NCGR) under slow growth conditions were lost due to the fungal or bacterial contamination.

Now, compare it with the relevant excerpt from Reed (1999). Language that appears in the student’s paraphrase is in bold:

  • Some clonal crops are kept in slow-growth storage as in vitro cultures for germplasm conservation (Ashmore, 1997; Engelmann, 1991; Withers, 1991; Withers et al., 1990). Previously, mint cultures held at the National Clonal Germplasm Repository (NCGR) were stored at 4 °C in darkness in 13 mm x 100 mm glass tubes on MS (Murashige and Skoog, 1962) medium. Under these storage conditions, 50% of the cultures were lost to fungal or bacterial contamination (Reed, unpublished data).

This pair of extracts was one of several that Pecorari and Shaw showed to eight university faculty in the natural sciences, engineering, and medicine. Pecorari and Shaw asked them whether the example was appropriate and if it would be considered plagiarism. Comparing the student’s text with the source text, you can see the student repeated a few nouns (mint cultures, the NCGR) and adjectives (slow-growth) that are key to the technical material—a practice that most readers would find acceptable. Also, an in-text citation (Reed, 1999) is present, although the student does not indicate that the Reed 1999 piece cites unpublished data. So far, so good. But what about the last sentence? It’s lifted essentially word for word.

Six faculty members said that this source use was acceptable and not considered plagiarism—one argued that it was acceptable because “only very short extracts of sentences and not full sentences” were identical (p. 154). The seventh said that it was not acceptable but that she wouldn’t count it as plagiarism (although how she reconciled these two the article does not make clear). The eighth was on the fence about whether it was acceptable (but didn’t think it was plagiarism) (Pecorari & Shaw, 2012, p. 153). This kind of word-for-word borrowing, without quotation marks, of longer stretches of language (especially beyond 4-5 words) is what most composition handbooks and our own academic integrity regulations would consider textbook plagiarism.

The issue, it seems, is one of quantity: how long can a borrowed string of language be before it’s considered inappropriate? Faculty members raised a variety of reasons for what Pecorari and Shaw call “legitimate intertextuality.” Some content is in the public domain, as are some strings of language. Sometimes, content can only be expressed in a few ways. And some repetition may be acceptable in, for example, a methods section. However, the faculty members did not agree on “the boundaries of the information [that does not need a reference] or on the length or type of strings that fall into this category” (p. 155).

What we’re left with, then, is a mess. And this is just one small, relatively inconsequential example of disagreement. Given the damage that plagiarism accusations can cause, I’d second Pecorari’s (2012) view that this “lack of consensus” is “dangerous” (p. 3). And although I’d argue that finding consensus in these fuzzy areas is, frankly, hopeless, we can strive to be as transparent as possible with students about our own beliefs and practices, including in those gray areas. To this end, we should share with our students accurate and well-grounded answers to these two questions: How do we deal with common knowledge and common language in our own work? And how do we read theirs?

Scholarship Cited
Pecorari, D. (2012, June). Textual plagiarism: How should it be regarded? ORI Newsletter, 20(3), 3, 10. Retrieved from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity,

Pecorari, D., & Shaw, P. (2012). Types of intertextuality and faculty attitudes. Journal of Second Language Writing, 21(2), 149-164.

Roig, M. (2001). Plagiarism and paraphrasing criteria of college and university professors. Ethics and Behavior, 11, 307–323.

Sutherland-Smith, W. (2005). Pandora’s box: Academic perceptions of student plagiarism in writing. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 4, 83–95.

Other Resource Cited
Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices

3 thoughts on “Do we know what we mean when we call it plagiarism?

  1. Hi, it is great you have started this blog! Plagiarism is an işssue here too, and we teach ways to avoid it. In a recent seminar held here on METU campus, one of the more senior faculty mentioned that when she was younger a professor (either in or from the US at the time) had taught her “the no more than four words in a row” rule while paraphrasing. Whether it was his own rule or taken from another scholar I do not know, but I liked it as it may help our students in evaluating the appropriacy of their own paraphrases.
    On the last sentence of the text in your post, we here would tell the student to place it within quotations or better, rephrase it, because it is possible without “forcing” the language.

  2. Thanks for your note, Cahide! I have definitely heard the “no more than four words in a row” principle, but I could imagine examples where using four words in a row would definitely count as plagiarism (e.g., when it involves key concepts or unique turns of phrase from the reading), and examples where more than four words used would still not count as plagiarism.

    Your comment about putting that sentence in quotes made me think of an additional tangle–I suspect that science journal articles (which the thesis, I assume, strives to resemble) tend to *not* quote, or only use quotations in certain places. That makes avoiding unintentional plagiarism even more complicated!

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