Misunderstandings that Lead to Accidental Plagiarism

You’ve probably heard your teachers warn against plagiarism a hundred times. You know you’re not supposed to cut and paste off the Internet and you know to stay away from shady online paper mills offering essays of questionable quality and often expecting to be paid, no less. These are the more obvious plagiarism scenarios, but there are some less obvious ones as well, and without being aware of them, a well-meaning student can find him or herself staring down at an ominous “Please see me” comment when the teacher returns graded papers. Here are some common misunderstandings that can lead to accidental plagiarism.

Reusing Your Old Work

Your English teacher assigns you an advertisement analysis essay. Fortunately, your Political Science teacher last term made you write on campaign advertisements! A solid chunk of that poli sci paper works perfectly in this term’s English paper, and, since you did well on that paper, you feel pretty confident about the English paper. Perfect! But a week later, when the papers come back, you realize everything is not perfect and your grade has been significantly reduced because a large part of the paper is plagiarized. Your teacher knows this because students have to upload their essays to a learning management system, like Canvas or Blackboard, and the plagiarism checker turned up a big part of your English paper as having been previously submitted.

 This is a very common misunderstanding. After all, if you wrote the original paper, how can it be plagiarism? And what can be wrong with you using your own paper for different classes? This may not be blatant plagiarism like a straight cut and paste from the Internet into your Word document, and some teachers might even be lenient, but it is still considered plagiarism. That’s because teachers expect you to write original work for each class. Basically, you already got credit for the paper once and they’re not going to give you credit for the same paper again.

Too Much Help from a Tutor

Your school probably has a writing center or a tutoring center, or maybe you’ve got a friend who already took the class and is good at writing. Other people are excellent resources, and you should absolutely take advantage of help and feedback. However, it can be easy to let a tutor or friend do a little too much and put too much of their own wording or their own style into your paper. If you’ve been struggling on your essays and all of a sudden you’re writing like a grad student, your teacher is going to notice. This might not seem like plagiarizing because the tutor just helped you express your own ideas better, but if you turn in writing that you can’t personally replicate, your teacher won’t think it’s ok, and it will be pretty awkward when she asks you to define defenestrate, or whatever slickness your friend put in your paper.

Paraphrase Problems

Direct quotes are relatively straightforward. You use the writer’s exact words and you put them in quotation marks. Indirect quotes, aka paraphrases, are harder to do correctly, and they’re where a lot of plagiarism misunderstandings happen. Sometimes people think if they put the source material into their own words, it becomes “theirs” and they don’t have to cite it, but plagiarism is using someone else’s words and/or ideas without giving proper credit. Even if you change up the words, you have to give credit to the source you got the idea from. 

Partial paraphrases are another trouble spot. Many people are unsure of how thoroughly they need to put something in their own words; after all, you can’t really rephrase numbers, proper nouns, or key terms. Misunderstandings happen all the time when writers think they’ve put the passage in their own words but they’re actually still leaning on the wording or the sentence structure of the original. Unfortunately, slipping in a few synonyms is not enough and would still be considered plagiarism.

The Common Knowledge Gray Area

A common misunderstanding is in just what does have to be cited and what doesn’t. Common knowledge doesn’t have to be cited, but what exactly is common knowledge? It’s kind of a gray area, but basically, if it’s something you could reasonably expect anyone to know, like the name of the president or how many states are in the U.S.A., it’s common knowledge. But if you’re really into something, like maybe soccer or anime, you might have a lot of knowledge about the topic that most people don’t have. It might feel like common knowledge to you because to you it is, but most people wouldn’t know it. There could be a misunderstanding if you don’t cite a fact that your teacher thinks you should. When in doubt, it never hurts to find a citation!

Source Overuse

Even if you cite everything correctly, you can still run into problems if you overuse sources. This one might not quite be plagiarism, but it is a common area of misunderstanding involving source use and could hurt your grade. Remember, research is important (and often required!) but your teacher wants to know what you think about a topic, not what Bob from the Internet thinks. If your sources drown out your own voice and your own ideas, your teacher might not have much from you to grade. You might feel like there’s not much to add when a source can say something perfectly, but your teacher wants to see how you can analyze, synthesize, and work with that source. Don’t let the sources upstage you!


Cite your various sources at CiteThisForMe.com! There’s a Harvard reference generator, an MLA formatter, and the APA citation generator, too. Plug in an author, title, ISBN, or even a DOI, and Cite This For Me will automatically create the citation you need in the format you want!