Plagiarism on College Campuses

An act of plagiarism may involve using someone else's words, ideas, images, or other work as if they were one's own. It is often considered to be an act of literary theft or fraud. The actor may present some material as being “new and original” without adding a citation or other means of referencing or crediting the real source.

The terms “borrowing” or “copying” tend to minimize the reality that plagiarism is a form of theft. Someone's established ideas or words are deemed as intellectual property and can be treated similarly to violating copyright protections. In academic institutions, plagiarism is strictly prohibited, as educators emphasize the importance of maintaining high ethical standards and expectations for integrity.

Understanding Plagiarism

Over the last few decades, plagiarism has become a more widespread concern based on the vast amount of material and information that is accessible via the internet. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works was among the first measures that sought to prevent acts of intellectual property theft. It was largely implemented for the protection of those who produce music, art, poetry, and other works

In the 1960s, advertising began surfacing that offered term paper for sale to college students. At the time, these businesses self-identified as being providers of “academic research programs” or “student writing assistance.” As the internet has developed, these types of services have become widespread. At the same time, search engines may allow for an instructor to more easily uncover acts of plagiarism, particularly when the information is copied word-for-word.

How Prevalent is Plagiarism in Higher Education?

A survey completed by the Psychological Record indicated that approximately 36% of undergraduate students had plagiarized material at some point in time. Their data suggested that plagiarism is much more common in high school. A Rutgers University study surveyed 16,000 post-secondary students in the U.S. and found that 66% had cheated at some time, which certainly contradicts the other report.

Why Do Students Plagiarize?

Some students have developed a pattern of academic dishonesty from earlier in their educational progress—such as in high school. These students may have had some prior success that went undetected and did not result in adverse consequences. There are also possible social pressures when a student encounters peers that reveal they commit dishonest academic activity. In this scenario, a student may feel that cheating is justifiable or a norm.

Another common reason that a student may plagiarize is procrastination. The student may find themselves approaching a deadline and decide to take “shortcuts.” Others may struggle to grasp the material in the course and will choose to use another's work as a way of “getting by.”

Types of Plagiarism

Various types of plagiarism can be loosely categorized as follows:

Global Plagiarism

Global or universal plagiarism is extremely overt and flagrant, thus making it comparatively much easier to detect. The actor copies an entire piece of information such as article, journal post, etc. More commonly, this type of plagiarism will involve having another individual create the work on your behalf entirely.

For example, a student may provide compensation to someone to create a complete body of work and simply submit it as if they had written it. If students conspire to commit these acts of academic dishonesty, it could be also considered as “collusion” or “collaborative” cheating.

Improper Paraphrasing

One common way that plagiarism occurs is through paraphrasing, which is an acceptable skill—when the source is cited. Paraphrasing involves taking material from a source and creating a summary or revising the information or idea in “your own words.” Because of the variation in wording that occurs, it is among the most difficult forms of plagiarism to detect. This is also a form of plagiarism that is misunderstood because a student may not be properly informed or educated regarding the concern.

Copying Verbatim

If an author copies text directly and uses the statement(s) without properly citing or referencing the source that is plagiarizing material verbatim. This may also be referred to as "cut and paste" plagiarism. The actor may attempt to change a few words, remove a sentence from an entire copied paragraph, or some variation that improperly uses the author's material without crediting the source.

Patchwork or Incremental Plagiarism

Committing patchwork-style or incremental plagiarism requires more effort because it involves using material from multiple sources without citing the source. It is also commonly called “mosaic” plagiarism. The information gathered may also be rephrased to some extent, similar to those who improperly paraphrase.


Acts of self-plagiarism involve using one's material again without disclosure or obtaining permission. In its most extreme form, a student may simply resubmit an entire paper or piece of work that was previously submitted for academic credit. When the information from a previously submitted assignment is rephrased, it may not specifically be considered as plagiarism and typically must be assessed case-by-case.

Inaccurate or Incorrect Citations

In some instances, a student may submit an assignment containing information or ideas of another author that is cited improperly. This may be the result of a lack of understanding of what constitutes a full or proper citation. This type of violation is less severe than cases where the work lacks any reference or citation. It may be the result of never studying the proper way to make references or to format a bibliography.

Improper Usage of Photos, Video Footage, and Music

There is often some confusion or misunderstanding regarding whether a student can copy images or other materials without plagiarizing. Copying or otherwise using the works in an assignment is considered as plagiarism when permission has not been provided. This could apply to students involved in courses related to art, music, media production, and more.

Copying images or photographs from someone's website and pasting them into an assignment is a form of plagiarism. The same applies to the use of video or music that is subject to copyright. Creating music that largely uses the work of another performer also may constitute a violation. Many people fail to realize that simply taking someone's visual work and converting it to an alternate format is also prohibited; for example, converting a painting to some type of digital photograph (or vice versa).

The Credibility of Web Sources and Misinformation

Students that are conducting research today benefit from the vast amount of information available on topics that can be quickly identified by a search engine. Educators teach students the importance of properly citing all sources used. One challenge that exists is ensuring that the information used is truly credible.

Students may encounter misinformation and unintentionally use this data as a basis for their assignment, would be interpreted as an act of fabrication or falsification. Students must receive some guidance on how to “fact-check” and properly evaluate the credibility of sources. A source may pose as having expertise on a topic. For example, students may find themselves relying on a source of material that is created to promote sales of products, services, or other commercial purposes.

Detection of Plagiarism in Higher Education

An instructor that is evaluating a paper or other assignment submitted by a student may suspect plagiarism. The writing style may lack consistency or the student's knowledge of the material or writing quality may vary considerably from prior work submitted. In these cases, the instructor may meet with the student and attempt to determine if the student's knowledge of the topic seems to coincide with the writing. 

Many colleges and universities have employed forms of plagiarism detection software to reveal potential acts of wrongdoing. Turnitin is one such program that is widely used. This program can scan the internet to look for other existing sources with the same or very similar sentences or paragraphs.

Critics of software that detects possible acts of plagiarism say that it is limited to detecting acts of verbatim plagiarism. Those who paraphrase the thoughts or ideas from another source without providing a citation may avoid detection. Also, a student could potentially access Turnitin or a similar program themselves to ensure that they will avoid detection. This is possible because the program highlights or otherwise reveals the potentially plagiarized part of the material, which can simply be modified and then submitted.

International Students and Plagiarism

Each year, hundreds of thousands of foreign students attend U.S. schools from many different countries. These students may have different standards regarding plagiarism based on cultural differences in the educational system. For example, many Asian countries employ a more collective student approach to education that may encourage assisting other students to an extent that may be considered inappropriate by U.S. standards.

Students who have learned English as a second-language may potentially misinterpret or simply fail to understand what constitutes plagiarism in our educational system. The student may be reluctant to approach their instructor regarding this lack of understanding for some reason. Some foreign students also experience significant difficulty in adapting to our style of writing. Many students find our writing style to be rigid and very challenging.

Violations of Academic Integrity

At Rutgers University for example, they separate violations of academic integrity into two categories with differing sanctions. Non-separable infractions are the less serious of the two, which are appropriate for first-time violations that will not result in sanctions such as suspension or expulsion from the institution. Examples of non-separable violations include:

  • Most violations that involve improperly making a citation, which is generally inadvertent and associated with errors in formatting
  • Collaborating improperly with another student to complete an assignment such as homework where the grade has a minimal impact on the final grade received in the course
  • Possible violations of academic conduct that could reasonably be construed as accidental or otherwise unintentional
  • In many cases, violations involving graduate students are considered as being more serious

Separable violations of academic integrity are often premeditated and are acts of dishonesty. Some examples include the following:

  • The majority of acts of intentional plagiarism
  • Having another student complete an assignment on your behalf
  • Having another student take an examination on your behalf
  • Creating and referencing non-existent sources in completing an assignment, such as to affirm their findings or conclusions

At Penn State University, potential acts of academic misconduct are also subject to two levels of sanctions based on severity. If a faculty or staff member identifies a potential violation, they will initially notify the appropriate departmental associate dean. When the evidence confirms some likelihood of a violation, the matter is forwarded to the Academic Integrity Committee.

Unlike the sanctions, which are separated into two categories, the violations themselves are classified as either being minor, moderate, or major. Those considered as major are typically committed with intent. Moderate and major potential violations are also reviewed by the Office of Student Conduct or someone they designate. In these instances, the sanctions imposed are either probation, suspension, or expulsion from the school.

Investigation and Disciplinary Process

All schools have some set of written guidelines that explain their disciplinary process. The initial investigation seeks to determine if there is evidence that suggests an act of academic misconduct occurred. The accused student is always allowed to be heard. Many schools summon all the parties to a hearing, which have varying degrees of formality.

When the accusations involve minor infractions, there may be an informal process of resolving such a written warning or verbal reprimand; however, this is less common. Schools do permit those accused to choose an adviser that will serve to assist, support, and accompany them during the proceedings. It is important to consider retaining a knowledgeable student-conduct lawyer to function in this important role. 

Standard of Evidence

Each college or university has designated administrator(s) that will review the evidence and allow for the accused to be heard. The standard generally employed in evaluation is by a preponderance of the evidence. This is a comparatively low standard that equates to “more likely than not.” It is a much lower standard than beyond a reasonable doubt that applies to criminal matters.

Potential Appeals Process

Most academic institutions do allow for parties to appeal unfavorable rulings. The provisions often require that written intent to appeal be received by a short deadline. Those wishing to appeal a decision are strongly encouraged to do so with assistance from a student rights attorney that is very familiar with these matters.

Outcomes and Consequences

If a student is suspended during an academic term, they are likely to lose credit for any coursework and monies paid for tuition, fees, or campus housing (if applicable). The student will be unable to participate in extracurricular activities, student organizations, athletics, and any student employment will be terminated. Students that are dismissed are permanently separated from the institution and lose any scholarship benefits.

Certain types of students may also have longer-term or collateral consequences based on the academic program they are enrolled in. For example, a nursing student may be unable to gain admission to an advanced nursing program or may face difficulties in being granted their state (professional) nursing license. An international student that is suspended or dismissed from an institution may no longer qualify as a full-time student according to the provisions of their F-1 or J-1 foreign student visa. This will result in being made ineligible to remain in the country. 

Importance of Retaining an Attorney-Adviser in Matters of Academic Dishonesty

Leaders in the realm of higher education today recognize how important it is to maintain a positive public reputation. One major area of concern involves the school's credibility in terms of academic integrity. Institutional administrators responsible for managing the disciplinary process, such as with allegations of plagiarism against a student, may make a rush to judgment without properly considering the rights of the accused. Further, they may seek to impose grossly excessive sanctions on these matters to serve as a deterrent.

Students and their loved ones are often making substantial commitments of time and money in pursuit of a college education. This goal can be abruptly shattered if a campus disciplinary process leads to a suspension or expulsion. Evidence of disciplinary actions such as plagiarism may also be documented in student records and transcripts. This can pose significant challenges in seeking admission to another school, a graduate-level program, or obtaining an internship.

You are encouraged to promptly speak with an attorney after initially being made aware that you are the subject of accusations such as to allow time for preparation to deliver highly-impactful statements and to confidently respond to questions. Having seasoned representation in these matters will better ensure your rights are well-protected. Your attorney may consider speaking with the proper administrators to potentially negotiate a mutually acceptable resolution that minimizes sanctions.

Experienced Student Advisory Representation for Allegations of Academic Misconduct

Are you a student at a college or university that is faced with serious allegations of plagiarism, cheating, or another similar type of academic misconduct? The Lento Law Firm has the knowledge and skills needed to obtain a positive outcome.  Contact the office at (888) 535-3686 for additional information.

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If you, or your student, are facing any kind of disciplinary action, or other negative academic sanction, and are having feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for what the future may hold, contact the Lento Law Firm today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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