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Intentional and unintentional plagiarism

Understanding plagiarism | Consequences of plagiarism | Avoiding plagiarism |
Taking notes and paraphrasing | Additional resources


The recent sixth edition of the MLA Handbook includes a chapter on plagiarism and makes the point that plagiarism can be unintentional:  "as when an elementary school pupil, assigned to do a report on a certain topic, goes home and copies down, word for word, everything on the subject in an encyclopedia" (69-70). 

Even beyond elementary school, students may fail to understand how to quote accurately and paraphrase effectively, and as indicated by the right-hand list below, it is possible for students to plagiarism without realizing they are doing so.

Whether a teacher judges an instance of plagiarism as intentional or not depends on three factors:  the age of the student, the nature of the offense, and the scope of the offense. 

Age of the student

A freshman or sophomore with little research experience might argue successfully that poor paraphrasing (for example) was unintentional--the student simply did not know better.  A junior or senior who has completed several research assignments should know better, and for such students, carelessness or hastiness does not excuse plagiarism. 

Nature of the offense

It is one thing to include a word used by an author without understanding what it means or to paraphrase inadequately so that a paragraph sounds too much like the original.  It is another to insert whole chunks of an author's work into an essay without quotation marks. 

Scope of the offense

One passage that is poorly paraphrased in an otherwise meticulous essay, or one citation that is missing, or even one short quotation that is not enclosed in quotation marks--these are a far cry from an essay that is packed with such errors. 

To generalize, a teacher would judge as unintentional the plagiarism of a younger student committing any of the errors listed below on the right a handful of times in an essay   A teacher would judge as intentional the plagiarism of an older student committing such errors throughout an essay.  The point, of course, is not to embarrass or punish any student; it is to prepare all students for the rigorous standards of American colleges, which assume that students understand plagiarism and which treat all cases as intentional.

Intentional Plagiarism occurs when writers or researchers know full well they are passing off someone else's words or ideas as their own. Purchasing pre-written research papers through the mail or via the Internet is probably the most blatant  form of intentional plagiarism (and the easiest to detect).

Unintentional Plagiarism occurs when writers and researchers use the words or ideas of others but fail to quote or give credit, perhaps because they don't know how. When in doubt, students must check with a teacher or librarian.

Some specific examples of intentional plagiarism:

(1) Passing off as one's own pre-written papers from the Internet or other sources.

(2) Copying an essay or article from the Internet, on-line source, or electronic database without quoting or giving credit.

(3) Cutting and pasting from more than one source to create a paper without quoting or giving credit.

(4) Allowing someone else to write the paper or do the work.

(5) Borrowing words or ideas from other students or sources (such as Cliff's Notes) without giving credit.

(6) Failing to put quotation marks around the words of others. 

(7) Fabricating a quotation or a source.

(8) Pretending that an instant translation is one's own work.  (Not only is such a practice dishonest--but the instant translations give miserable results.  Click here for some examples.)

Some specific examples of plagiarism that may be unintentional:

(1) Paraphrasing poorly: changing a few words without changing the sentence structure of the original, or changing the sentence structure but not the words. 

(2) Paraphrasing poorly: using words from the original that aren't part of one's vocabulary.

(3) Quoting poorly:  putting quotation marks around part of a quotation but not around all of it, or putting quotation marks around a passage that is partly paraphrased and partly quoted.

(4) Citing poorly:  omitting an occasional citation or citing inaccurately.


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