What is plagiarism?

elt plagarize plagarizing plagiarise plagiarism Oct 22, 2021

By Dr Jeremy Koay

A limited view

Plagiarism is generally understood as copying words from a text without acknowledging its source. However, the working definition of plagiarism is less straightforward, and is influenced by both personal views of the concept, and institutional and disciplinary expectations (Zimitat, 2012). What is acceptable in one discipline or country may be considered plagiarism in another.

While it is a common belief that a universally agreed on definition of plagiarism exists, this concept remains fairly ambiguous (Sun, 2013). For example, some teachers and writers consider directly quoting more than three consecutive words from another text as plagiarism (Shi, 2004). However, not many would regard borrowing the phrase “the way in which” a form of plagiarism. This shows that defining plagiarism as borrowing an arbitrary number of words from another text is problematic.

A holistic view

Although not straightforward, it is helpful to view plagiarism in the light of academic honesty. Perhaps, the basic principle is the requirement to acknowledge the source of an idea.

Although technology (e.g., Turnitin) plays an important role in preventing plagiarism, it can only help teachers and students detect “identical strings of words in different texts” (Flowerdew & Li, 2007, p.175). Rather than relying on the generated similarity index, teachers will have to manually check the writing because identical text may be a direct quotation that has been appropriately referenced.

Practical applications

Because the definition of plagiarism differs across disciplines and institutions, it is important for institutions to be clear about what they mean by plagiarism. They should provide examples of such instances.

First year university students and those who are new to a particular higher learning institution may find it is useful to discuss their assignments with their tutors or lecturers. Because referencing conventions differ in different countries, referencing workshops may benefit international students.

School teachers can introduce the idea of plagiarism by encouraging their students to reference their sources using a simplified referencing method. At early primary school levels, for example, referencing can include mentioning the type of source (e.g., newspaper, website, textbook).


Flowerdew, J. & Li, Y. (2007). Plagiarism and second language writing in an electronic age. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 27, 161-183.

Shi, L. (2004). Textual borrowing in second-language writing. Written Communication, 21(2), 171-200.

Sun, Y. (2013). Do journal authors plagiarize? Using plagiarism detection software to uncover matching text across disciplines. Journal of English for Academic Purposes. 12(4), 264-272.

Zimitat, C. (2012). Plagiarism across the academic disciplines. In N. Brown, S.M. Jones & A. Adam (Eds.), Research and Development in Higher Education: Connections in Higher Education, Vol 35 (pp. 352-362). Hammondville, NSW: Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia.

Dr Jeremy Koay is a New Zealand-based Independent Researcher and a Research & Development Consultant at EduMaxi. He obtained his PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. His research interests include Discourse Analysis, Genre Analysis and TESOL.

Image source: shutterstock.com/Valery Sidelnykov