Virtually all professors and universities recognize plagiarism as a very serious offense. Your first step, ideally before you begin writing at all, is to understand what comprises plagiarism before a professor calls you out for it.
What is Plagiarism
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Plagiarism refers to presenting someone else's work as your own. It may consist of copying another student's paper, lines from an article or book, or from a website. Quoting, using quotation marks to indicate copied material as well as attributing the author, is entirely appropriate. Providing no attribution, however, is plagiarism. What many students do not realize is that changing words or phrases within copied material is also plagiarism because the ideas, organization, and words themselves are not attributed.
Unintentional Plagiarism Counts
Hiring someone to write your paper or copying it off an online essay site are clear instances of plagiarism, but sometimes plagiarism is much more subtle and unintended. Students can plagiarize without realizing it.
For example, a student's page of notes might consist of cut and pasted material from websites without proper labeling. Messy notes can lead to inadvertent plagiarism. Sometimes we read a quoted paragraph multiple times and begins to seem like our own writing. Unintentional plagiarism, however, is still plagiarism. Likewise, ignorance of the rules is no excuse for plagiarism.
Know Your Institution's Honor Code
If you are accused of plagiarism, acquaint yourself with your institution's honor code and academic honesty policy. Ideally, you should already be familiar with these policies. The honor code and academic honesty policy define plagiarism, its consequences, and how it is addressed.
Know the Process
Plagiarism is accompanied by serious consequences, including expulsion. Don't take it lightly. You might want to lay low but don't be passive. Participate in the process. Learn about how plagiarism cases are handled at your institution. For example, some institutions require that the student and instructor meet. If the student is not satisfied and wishes to appeal a grade, the student and instructor meet with the department chair.
The next step may be a meeting with the dean. If the student continues to appeal then the case might go to a university committee who then sends their final decision to the university provost. This is an example of how plagiarism cases progress in some universities. Learn about the process by which such cases are decided in your own institution. Do you have a hearing? Who makes the decision? Must you prepare a written statement? Figure out the process and participate as best you can.
Gather Your Support
Pull together all of the bits and pieces you used to write the paper. Include all articles and notes. Gather rough drafts and anything else that represents a stage in the paper writing process. This is one reason why it is always a good idea to save all of your notes and drafts as you write. The purpose of this is to show that you did the thought work, that you did the intellectual work in writing the paper. If your case of plagiarism involves failing to use quotation marks or appropriately cite a passage, these notes can show that it was more likely an error caused by sloppiness than intention.
What if it Was Intentional Plagiarism
The consequences of plagiarism can range from light, such as a paper rewrite or zero for a paper grade, to more severe, such as an F for the course and even expulsion. Frequently intention is an important influence on the severity of consequences. What do you do if you downloaded a paper off of an essay site?
You should admit it and come clean. Others might argue that you should never admit guilt, but it's impossible to accidentally portray a paper found online as your own. Your better bet is to admit it and be willing to suffer the consequences - and learn from the experience. Frequently, fessing up can lead to better outcomes as well.