Why It’s Not Okay To plagiarise

Give credit whenever you use another person’s ideas, words (spoken or written), facts, statistics, graphs and drawings.  

Let me begin with a simple definition: Plagiarism is using other people’s ideas and words without proper acknowledgement. The person who is plagiarising is stealing intellectual property that rightfully belongs to someone else and passing it off as his or her own. Yes, it is as bad as that!

CNN and Time recently suspended Fareed Zakaria, an Indian-American journalist, on a plagiarism charge. Zakaria was accused of including in his column about gun laws for Time a paragraph which closely resembled an article that Jill Lepore wrote for the New Yorker. Zakaria, who admitted to the charges, subsequently apologised.

Is it okay to plagiarise when you are writing non-fiction? Does plagiarism become an offence only in the academic context? What about fiction? Remember Kaavya Viswanathan’s novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, copies of which were withdrawn and destroyed after its author was accused of having plagiarised from several sources? Clearly, plagiarism is not acceptable in the context of any written work.

The first oath one must take upon entering student life is: I will not plagiarise. It is a useful oath to take and will save you much heartache. Having said that, let me also add that it is easy, especially in this post-Internet era when information is so readily available, to slip into what John Bunyan would have perhaps called the slough of plagiarism. Students are especially vulnerable, surrounded as they are by texts and ideas generated by other people.

The Indiana University website ( lists a few simple rules that students could keep in mind: Give credit whenever you use another person’s ideas, words (spoken or written), facts, statistics, graphs and drawings. Even where you have paraphrased, remember to acknowledge the source of the ideas. In an acceptable paraphrase, the writer conveys the information contained in the original using her own words and follows this up by acknowledging the source of her information. In short, footnoting and referencing are a student’s best friends. There are specific guidelines that one should adopt while citing and referencing. Most humanities students, for instance, follow the MLA style.

At the institution where I teach, faculty often warn students at the beginning of a course about the serious repercussions that plagiarism could have. Many run plagiarism checks on student assignments. In a context where relative grading is employed, students who may score higher grades on the basis of plagiarised assignments, are being unfair towards classmates who have put in the hours required for original work. This may result in teachers disallowing home assignments. In the long run, it is the student who suffers.

What happens, one may ask, when the same idea occurs to more than one person? And, in any case, aren’t ideas meant to be borrowed, circulated and employed? Aren’t there only so many original plots in the entire fictional universe? There are grey areas that one cannot deny. Nevertheless, it is important to tread carefully.

Ethical arguments apart, in the end, doing original work is much more fun. It can build confidence like nothing else can. It is also hugely satisfying.

Plagiarism is but an empty use of one’s time.

The writer is Associate Professor, Dept. of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT-Madras

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2022 5:28:51 AM |

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