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For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.
― Kahlil Gibran

Crtl+C, Ctrl+V: Potentially Fatal Career Mistake (Plagiarism Explained)

The first rule of all writing you do as a researcher is: Don't Copy+Paste. In short, plagiarism is a kind of theft of intellectual property. Here are some basic tips on how to avoid plagiarism.

Let us first understand intellectual property to understand how you can steal this 'property' and why is it a big deal.


Intellectual property (IP) is a term used to describe the creations of the mind and intelligence. These creations can be inventions, designs, and artistic works. In contrast to a house or a car, IP is an intangible property that is also protected by law. Intellectual property can be divided into two main categories: Industrial property, which includes patents and trademarks, and Copyright, which includes literary works (such as written content, books, novels, poems, stories, and plays), films, musical works, artistic works (such as product designs, drawings, paintings, photographs, and sculptures), and architectural designs. Copyright law grants creators the exclusive right to reproduce, adapt, and publicly perform or authorize others to do so.

Plagiarism is the act of taking someone else's work and presenting it as one's own without giving credit to the original author. It is a form of intellectual property infringement. A scientific researcher is expected to follow the codes of scholarly conduct and ethical behavior in the publication of their research findings. A violation of these standard codes is called "Scientific Misconduct" and is a serious offence that can lead to the termination of a job and other penalties. If you reuse the data or text of any other source in an inappropriate or unethical way, apart from plagiarism, it can also constitute scientific misconduct.

Magnitude of Problem

Plagiarism is a massive problem in the world today. It is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate between original content and plagiarized content. The internet has made it easier for people to get away with plagiarizing online content. For example, they can copy an article from a website or blog post and paste it on their own website without giving credit to the original author. It is appalling that even high school and university students, and sometimes even faculty members, are not aware of copyright infringement when they reuse other people's content and pass it off as their own. Now we have entered the ChatGPT era, where the lack of clear rules, controls and regulations on AI generated writing has opened a Pandora's box of ethical issues in writing.

Apart from being illegal, plagiarism is ethically and morally wrong. The artistic, creative or intangible works that seem to be freely scattered around the internet, begging to be picked up and reused, result from the creators' labor and are a source of livelihood for them. Displaying a work publicly does not mean permission to theft. Similarly, any diagram and text created by another researcher is a copyright material, and cannot be used by another researcher as it is.

What happens if you plagiarize?

In short: "You can be fired or expelled, or lose your reputation, or be penalized in other ways"

Every year, cases of plagiarism and scientific misconduct happen even in the elite IITs of India. Some make it to the newspapers; most incidents don't. As a faculty member, you can lost your job or future prospects if you commit plagiarism. Though there are many ways to avoid plagiarizing another person’s work, it can still happen accidentally if you are not careful enough. Even if you commit plagiarism accidentally, it can still result in serious consequences and a tarnished reputation. As a student at a school or university, plagiarism is a serious academic offence and dishonesty, that can result in expulsion from school or university.

If you read up on plagiarism in the news, you will find that even reputed and eminent people sometimes end up committing unintentional plagiarism. It does not matter if someone else wrote the material for you, or if you inadvertently copied something, or you forgot to attribute something to the source. Once you are accused of plagiarism, your reputation takes a hit. If you are an academician, the plagiarism could be a part of a larger academic fraud that your student has committed, but you end up with serious consequences for your career.

When is it plagiarism?

You might be wondering if you can use someone else's work without their permission in your content writing, or without citing them in your academic writing. The answer to that question is no. If you are using someone else's work without their permission or without citing them, then you are committing plagiarism. Some of the most common ways people commit plagiarism are by:

  • Copying sentences word-for-word without quotation marks and citation

  • Copying sentences without changing them at all

  • Cutting and pasting paragraphs from other sources

  • Quoting material without giving credit

  • Reusing published images without proper credits

  • Relying on content written by an employee, student or hired freelancer, who provides you plagiarized content

  • If you are a faculty member, you can be held responsible if you are the co-author of content written by your student who has committed plagiarism.

Here is a short and informative article on "Common Misconceptions among Students about Plagiarism" - Link (Written by Devlina Chatterjee IME Department, IIT Kanpur)

How to avoid Plagiarism?

To avoid plagiarism, always make sure that you cite your sources when using someone else's words or ideas in your own writing and give them credit where it is due. Strive to create your own content and text. Do not be tempted to reuse things from the internet in your work.

There are several ways to avoid plagiarism in your writing:

  • Be Original. Always write, create, and provide original content. Try to avoid copying content from others. Try to write your own thoughts, ideas, and content. If you need more information on the topic, read it up, understand it and then write your own version. While this may seem like a daunting task at first, it will help you learn how to express your own thoughts and ideas in your own way.

  • Don't Copy+Paste. Avoid reusing content because it looks impressive without referencing it. Do not write or cite too much information from others' writings and papers when doing research for class assignments or papers just to expand your content. Use what is specific and relevant.

  • Paraphrase. When you need to copy some content for its relevance, paraphrase it well. Always cite your sources properly and do not cut-and-paste sections of other people's work into your own paper without proper citation.

  • Cite Your Sources. Even in the “discussions” and “literature review” sections of your paper, try to paraphrase, and don't forget to cite and attribute. Attribute even images or figures to the original creator by proper citation. Once you make this a habit, you are less likely to forget to cite.

  • Use Plagiarism Checking Apps. Check for plagiarism before submitting your article. Use a plagiarism checker tool like Turnitin or Grammarly or ProWritingAid or Copyscape or any tool your employer or university offers.

  • Be Informed. Find out if you are allowed to reuse data or content from a source. When you are not sure, write to the owners for permission. Read the copyright terms and conditions of the website, journal, etc., before reusing any content. Enquire when in doubt.

  • Develop Personal Integrity. Do not repost others' original contents or digital products with a catch-all "credit to original uploader".

Plagiarism, intellectual property rights and scientific misconduct are taken extremely seriously by reputed institutes. If you work involves research writing, creating presentations, writing scientific proposals, then it is vital that you understand how you can avoid plagiarism. The best way to avoid plagiarism is to make sure you are original and to be very wary of plagiarism. Make it a priority to learn the craft of writing as a part of all the skills you learn in your early years as a researcher.

Read more on this issue:

Recommended E-Book for Learning How to Cite References

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