From: MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. Joseph Gibaldi and Walter S. Achtert, 3rd edition, New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1988, pp. 20-25.


1.6. Plagiarism


You may have heard the word plagiarism used in relation to lawsuits in the publishing and recording industries. You may also have had classroom discussions about academic plagiarism. Plagiarism is the act of using another person's ideas or expressions in your writing without acknowledging the source. The word comes from the Latin word plagiarius ("kidnapper"), and Alexander Lindey defines it as "the false assumption of authorship: the wrongful act of taking the product of another person's mind, and presenting it as one's own" (Plagiarism and Originality [New York: Harper, 1952] 2). In short, to plagiarize is to give the impression that you have written or thought something that you have in fact borrowed from someone else.

Plagiarism in student writing is often 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. Unfortunately, some students continue to use such "research methods" in high school and even in college without realizing that these practices constitute plagiarism. You may certainly use other persons' words and thoughts in your research paper, but you must acknowledge the authors.

Plagiarism often carries severe penalties, ranging from failure in a course to expulsion from school.

The most blatant form of plagiarism is to repeat at your own someone else's sentences, more or less verbatim. Suppose, for example, that you want to use the material in the following passage, which appears on page 906 in volume 1 of the Literary History of the United States:

The major concerns of Dickinson's poetry early and late, her "flood subjects," may be defined as the seasons and nature; death and a problematic afterlife, the kinds and phases of love, and poetry as the divine art.

If you write the following without any documentation, you have committed plagiarism:

The chief subjects of Emily Dickinson's poetry include nature and the seasons, death and the afterlife, the various types and stages of love, and poetry itself as a divine art.

But you may present the information if you credit the authors:

Gibson and Williams suggest that the chief subjects of Emily Dickinson's poetry include nature, death, love, and poetry as a divine art (906).

The sentence and the parenthetical documentation at the end indicate the source, since the authors' names and the volume and page numbers refer the reader to the corresponding entry in the bibliography:

Gibson, William M., and Stanley T. Williams. "Experiment in Poetry: Emily Dickinson and Sidney Lanier." Literary History of the United States. Ed. Robert E. Spiller et al. 4th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan, 1974. 899-916

Other forms of plagiarism include repeating someone else's particularly apt phrase without appropriate acknowledgment, paraphrasing another person's argument as your own, and presenting anther's line of thinking as though it were your own. Two more examples follow:

Original source

This, of course, raises the central question of this paper. What should we be doing? Research and training in the whole field of restructuring the world as an "ecotopia" (eco-, from oikos, household; -topia from topos, place, with implication of "eutopia"--"good place") will presumable be the goal. (From E. N. Anderson, Jr., "The Life and Culture of Ecotopia," Reinventing Anthropology, ed. Dell Hymes [1969; New York: Vintage-Random, 1974] 275.)

Plagiarized in student writing

Humankind should attempt to create what we might call an "ecotopia."

Original source

Humanity faces a quantum leap forward. It faces the deepest social upheaval and creative restructuring of all time. Without clearly recognizing it, we are engaged in building a remarkable civilization from the ground up. This is the meaning of the Third Wave.

Until now the human race has undergone two great waves of change, each one largely obliterating earlier cultures or civilizations and replacing them with ways of life inconceivable to those who came before. The First Wave of change--the agricultural revolution--took thousands of years to play itself out. The Second Wave--the rise of industrial civilization--took a mere hundred years. Today history is even more accelerative, and it is likely that the Third Wave will sweep across history and complete itself in a few decades. (From Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave [1980; New York: Bantam, 1981] 10.)

Plagiarized in student writing

There have been two revolutionary periods of change in history: the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution. The agricultural revolution determined the course of history for thousands of years; the industrial civilization lasted about a century. We are now on the threshold of a new period of revolutionary change, but this one may last for only a few decades (10).

In the first example, the writer borrowed a specific term (ecotopia) without acknowledgment; in the second example, the writer presented another's line of thinking without giving that person credit. Once again, however, the students could have avoided the charge of plagiarism by rewording slightly and inserting appropriate parenthetical documentation.

Humankind should attempt to create what E.N. Anderson, Jr., has called an "ecotopia" (275).

According the Alvin Toffler, there have been two revolutionary periods of change in history: the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution. The agricultural revolution determined the course of history for thousands of years; the industrial civilization lasted about a century. We are now on the threshold of a new period of revolutionary change, but this one may last for only a few decades (10).


As before, the parenthetical documentation in each revision identifies the source of the borrowed material and refers the reader to the full description of the work in the bibliography at the end of paper:

Anderson, E.N.., Jr. "The Life and Culture of Ecotopia." Reinventing Anthropology. Ed. Dell Hymes.1969. New York: Vintage-Random, 1974. 264-81.

Toffler, Alvin. The Thrid Wave. 1980. New York: Bantam, 1981.


If you have any doubt about whether or not you are committing plagiarism, cite your source or sources.