Why Is Plagiarism a Problem?

It is typical – even expected – to use the ideas of those who came before you in your academic writing. Both university students and professionals routinely lean on other people’s words to bolster their original work and arguments. But while referencing the work of others is par for the course, plagiarism is not – yet it happens all too easily.

Unfortunately, plagiarism occurs amongst students and professionals alike. That’s true whether we’re talking about high school or higher education, college students or graduate students, professional scientists or professional writers. Plagiarism happens for any number of reasons, including:

  • Lack of understanding of copyright laws and copyright infringement
  • Unintentional theft of intellectual property by failing to cite people’s work correctly
  • Pure laziness

If you want to avoid being a plagiarist, the best thing you can do is first understand why plagiarism is wrong to begin with. That means learning what it is, what forms it takes, what the consequences are, and how to avoid it.

What is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is the use of other people’s words without proper attribution. Using text or even data from a book, article, or another source word-for-word, without crediting who said it, is a form of theft. If you’re a professional, this act can get you into serious trouble for copyright infringement. Even if you are “only” committing student plagiarism, it’s a serious form of academic dishonesty, and the consequences can be quite serious and long-lasting.

One reason plagiarism is such a serious problem is that many people don’t know they’re committing it. Sure, plenty of people do it on purpose, but more individuals fail to see where they’re committing the error. Let’s take a look at the many types of plagiarism that exist now.

Forms of Plagiarism

Plagiarism is, at least partially, such a sweeping problem because there are so many ways to go about it. Whether you’re a magazine columnist, a research psychologist, a renowned physicist, or a freshman college student, there are plenty of ways to accidentally or not-so-accidentally borrow the work of others without credit. The most common types of plagiarism are as follows:


Because self-plagiarism doesn’t even really seem like plagiarism at all, it is a practice that people are often surprised to learn isn’t allowed – in both the academic and the professional world. This occurs when you borrow your own previously created work to complete an assignment or round out a piece of writing.

Although the assumption is that since you did produce the work yourself that it belongs to you. However, that is not entirely true. You did do the writing, so you’re not stealing from someone else, and that’s a plus. However, reusing your old work is a form of plagiarism because:

  • You’re not writing to the specific question given to you by your professor if it’s a student assignment
  • You are not doing the original work assigned to you by a boss or publication, so you’re shorting them on your part of the bargain
  • You may possibly still be stealing if someone else has a stake in what you wrote before, e.g. a magazine or publishing company that paid you for your work and owns the copyright with you

Note, however, that you can cite yourself if you really need to use your own work!

Intentional Plagiarism

As the name suggests, intentional plagiarism is when you really and truly mean to rip off someone else’s work. This often takes the form of word-for-word copying, though you can also cheat by rewriting someone else’s work without attribution. Also called direct plagiarism, there is absolutely no excuse for this. While all forms are punishable, this is the one most likely to ruin your reputation because you did it knowingly.

Unintentional Plagiarism

Unlike the above, unintentional plagiarism occurs when you really had no idea you were doing anything wrong. It usually happens when you:

  • Forget to use quotation marks with a quote
  • Fail to cite a source on accident
  • Don’t adequately paraphrase another author’s idea, but also don’t use quotation marks

These are all avoidable mistakes, happily, which we will discuss in greater detail below.

Patchwriting (Patchwork Plagiarism)

Patchwork plagiarism, also known as patchwriting, cannot truly be called a form of writing at all. Instead, it means piecing the work of others around – either one author or multiple – until the resulting mishmash looks like something totally new. It is not something new at all, of course, but rather a clever attempt at concealing your theft.

The truth is, it’s not even so clever today. Before the age of internet plagiarism checkers, you could often get away with this sort of thing. Today, though, so much knowledge and text have been uploaded to the internet that you’re quite likely to get caught for this kind of thing.

Source-Based Plagiarism

The last main type of plagiarism of which you should be aware is source-based. This occurs when you don’t cite a quotation or idea correctly, either because you:

  • Confuse two sources
  • Cite only one source when the idea you’re borrowing actually comes from two
  • Reference an incorrectly named source
  • Use a source that doesn’t exist, unintentionally or otherwise
  • Pad out your reference list with fudged sources
  • Cite a secondary source when the quote or information came from a primary one

As with any other type of plagiarism, this can have serious consequences.

Consequences of Plagiarism

So now we get to the heart of the question, “Why is plagiarism a problem?” And the answer is that getting caught can change your whole life. While you might receive a pass at the middle or high school level, by the time you get to college, the passes are gone. You are expected to know – and follow – the rules. If you don’t, you can expect to see severe consequences such as the ones that follow.

Plagiarism Consequences for Students

Expulsion is the main concern for university students. Yes, you can truly get kicked out of a program or even an entire school for this breach of academic integrity. Even if you aren’t, you can earn a mark on your record that will stay with you throughout academia.

Plagiarism Consequences for Professionals

Job loss and ruined reputation are the main risks for professionals. This is unfortunately true even if you are accused of plagiarism and found innocent (whether or not you are), because organizations just can’t afford to be associated with this crime.

Plagiarism IRL

Plagiarism also happens in real life. The New Yorker’s Jonah Lehrer and The Beatles George Harrison are two examples that come to mind. Both faced serious consequences for their actions.

Consequences for the Original Author

Simply because you might get away with stolen work in research papers or online plagiarism, that doesn’t mean there are no consequences to someone else. When authors’ work is stolen, they can suffer in a variety of ways:

  • Failing to get credit for ideas that have value (obviously, or you would not steal them)
  • Losing web traffic to their original work
  • Losing revenue that is owed to them for those ideas or products
  • Having their reputations questioned if they look like the plagiarists

How to Avoid Plagiarism

For obvious reasons, it’s best to just avoid plagiarism altogether, and here’s how.

Maintain Good Writing Practices

Good writing practices can help to ensure that your writing is of honorable quality so you don’t a) need to cheat or b) accidentally look like you’re cheating. This includes:

  • Paraphrasing: This is when you really like a specific thought of another author and want to use it, but you use different words and sentence structure to express it in your own voice.
  • Summarizing: Similar to paraphrasing, summarizing means using your own words to express a set of ideas or a thesis from another author.
  • Citing: Sharing your source for an idea or quote is expected if you want to avoid plagiarism, and that means following a specific citation style – usually APA, MLA or Chicago.
  • Quoting: Putting quotes around the text you’ve cut and pasted, or copied out of a book, is necessary when you’re using it word-for-word.

Use a Plagiarism Checker

Another useful writing practice is using a plagiarism checker. This is a tool that will comb through your writing, comparing it to thousands of online resources looking for any instances of borrowed text, and ensuring you’ve cited them correctly. If you miss something on accident it’s no problem: the checker will point these instances out to you and give you a chance to fix them. You can easily insert a citation there or, if you want a little extra help, simplify your sourcing with a citation generator.

This is one of the best ways to adhere to academic integrity, combining your own ideas seamlessly with those of others, using quotation marks, and citing sources where appropriate. The result is a lifetime of research papers of which you can be proud.

Closing Thoughts

Now that you can thoroughly answer the question “Why is plagiarism a problem?” it’s time to take action. You can minimize the chances of committing any form of academic dishonesty by always giving proper credit when you borrow work. And that means ensuring you don’t accidentally overlook any necessary citations.

Make sure to keep a plagiarism checker – such as Quetext’s free plagiarism checker – in your back pocket, along with a citation generator. These tools aren’t just window dressing; they are fundamental resources that any student or professional should keep on hand at all times. Plagiarism can ruin your life, and it can ruin the lives of those from whom work is stolen. Fortunately, employing these simple tools can prevent that.

The bottom line is, that plagiarism is a problem, but you can choose to be part of the solution. It only takes a commitment on your part to understand plagiarism policy, give proper credit, and always do your own work.