This essay is excepted from Gary K. Clabaugh & Edward G. Rozycki, Preventing Cheating and Plagiarism, 2nd Edition pdf. (2009) Oreland, PA: NewFoundations Press.

Defining Plagiarism

edited 2/16/12

Defining plagiarism is central to dealing with it. An actual incident involving a teacher in a private academy makes this clear. When some of her eighth grade students copied encyclopedia articles verbatim and turned them in as their own, the teacher gave their work a failing grade. She said they had plagiarized.

Some of the kid's parents appealed to the school's Headmistress. Overruling the teacher, she decreed such copying was not plagiarism -- at least not when done by 8th graders.

Urged to change the grades, the teacher refused. She insisted the kids had cheated. She had cautioned them about verbatim copying, she said, and they knew better. Unfortunately, she had nothing in writing. Ordered to change the grade, she still refused. Then the Headmistress dismissed the teacher for "insubordination."  Since the Academy's teacher's contracts gave management carte blanche, there was no appeal.

Who Is Vulnerable?

Instructors have frontline responsibility for defining plagiarism. Sometimes when they don't do it, no one will. But without administrative backing they can't make their definition stick. Organizational support is more likely if the teacher has established a clear-cut written policy -- particularly when some respected authority backs it. Still there are no guarantees. When administrators are more interested in pleasing parents than supporting instructors, teachers can still be left twisting slowly in the wind.

Administrators also risk a lap full of trouble if their school fails to define plagiarism in writing. Even when such cheating is obvious, resourceful parents, or any competent attorney, can be relied on to demand to know where plagiarism is spelled out and how this definition is communicated to students. If there is any definitional wiggle room, everyone in authority is vulnerable. And that is an unenviable position in our litigious society.

The full text of Preventing Plagiarism and Cheating has been reissued. It can be accessed via this link.

Other topics covered in the whole text are

The First Rule

The first rule in dealing with plagiarism, then, is to develop and publish a ...

A dictionary definition is better than mere assertion. Remember, though, dictionaries typically lack vital details. Here are three examples.

Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd edition, defines plagiarism as, "to take and pass off as one's own (the ideas, writings, etc. of another)."

The Oxford English Dictionary, Vol. XI, Second Edition describes it this way, "the wrongful appropriation or purloining and publication as one's own, of the ideas, or the expression of the ideas (literary, artistic, musical, mechanical, etc.) of another."

The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged edition, says that plagiarism is, "the appropriation or imitation of the language, ideas or thoughts of another author, and representation of their work as one's original work."

The problem with all three of these definitions is that key terms can be variously interpreted. ...


Style Manuals

Since dictionary definitions lack the specificity necessary to effectively combat plagiarism, instructors might better rely on discipline specific handbooks, such as the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers or the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. ...

Two Alternatives

Sometimes schools write their own plagiarism definition. Done well, this is the ideal solution. Done poorly, such homegrown definitions are worse than useless.

There is an easy alternative. The Plagiarism Book, an inexpensive student workbook by Clabaugh & Rozycki (2001), fixes the limits of plagiarism and teaches students, step-by-step, how to avoid it. Adopt this text and plausible deniability is a thing of the past.



Dealing effectively with plagiarism requires definitional clarity and an accompanying published policy. Dictionaries offer minimal definitional help. Discipline specific style manuals are usually better, though they can still be inadequate. A homegrown definition, authoritatively referenced and fitted to the circumstances, is desirable. A specialized publication like The Plagiarism Book offers a solid alternative. In addition, an enforceable published plagiarism policy is always required. There is no safe substitute.