The Problem of Plagiarism

Plagiarism can be defined as taking credit for another person's words or ideas, or in the words of my former colleague Mitch Sanders, "the intellectual equivalent of stealing." whether intentionally (e.g. if trying to fool a professor on an assigned research paper) or unintentionally (e.g. if you didn't know when or how to cite sources in writing a paper). It is important to realize that this definition isn't limited to situations where you are actively trying to fool the reader into thinking the ideas in your paper are your own -- plagiarism also includes unintentional cases where you did not intend to steal credit for an idea or fact, but you did not know that you had to cite the original source. It is vitally important to give credit where credit is due. Plagiarism -- whether intentional or inadvertent -- is a serious academic offense, and it will be penalized heavily.

UNT's Student Academic Integrity policy:

"Plagiarism" means use of another's thoughts or words without proper attribution in any academic exercise, regardless of the student's intent, including but not limited to:

Penalties In My Courses

Because of the serious nature of plagiarism -- whether intentional or negligent -- I will deduct up to five letter grades from any academic paper in my courses that fails to cite its sources. A little bit of math will reveal that this means a maximum grade of 50 percent (an F) on the paper, after deducting five letter grades -- fifty percent -- from a perfect score of 100 percent. The actual deduction may be lower for papers that include a bibliography but no footnotes or in-text citations, or for papers that cite a few (but not all) of their sources, but this is a very serious problem and will be dealt with appropriately.

Also note that serious cases of plagiarism or other forms of academic dishonesty will be handled in accordance with current University policy and procedures, as explained at  Possible academic penalties under my control range from a verbal or written admonition to a grade of “F” in the course; major violations may also face further sanctions ranging from academic probation to suspension, expulsion, or even revocation of UNT degrees.

What to Cite?

Starting Point: Did I Do (All of) This Work Myself?
The main point to remember is that any fact or idea that was not originally yours needs to be cited, in order to give credit to the original source. For example, if you discuss an academic theory in a research paper and you do not cite any articles or books that discuss the theory, you are implicitly telling the reader that you have just come up with the theory yourself. Similarly, if you write that a certain number of soldiers died in a battle and you do not cite any source for this information, you are implicitly telling the reader that you counted the bodies yourself.

Common Knowledge
You don't need to cite something that is common knowledge, but what that means can be debated. A good rule of thumb that I recommend to my classes is that you do not need to cite something that a typical high school freshman can reasonably be expected to know. For example, there is no need to cite the facts that George Washington was the first U.S. president, George Bush was president during the Gulf War, or Canada and Mexico both border the United States. A similar rule of thumb is that anything you need to look up is not common knowledge.

How Many Citations Do I Need?
You don't need to cite every single idea in your paper separately, as including hundreds of citations would quickly become unwieldy (and might give the instructor the impression that you are trying to pad the paper with extra citations to try to reach the assigned paper length. A good rule of thumb is that every paragraph that includes ideas that are not completely your own (and that are not common knowledge) should have at least one citation. A good way to handle this is to include a single set of citations at the end of the paragraph; the instructor will interpret this as indicating that these citations were used in writing the previous paragraph. If you do not include any citations in a paragraph, the instructor will interpret this as indicating that every idea and fact in the paragraph was originally developed by you. (Note that this guideline doesn't apply to direct quotes - those need to be cited specifically at the beginning or end of the quote, to make clear exactly which page or which source was used to produce that quote.)

But I Didn't Intend to Plagiarize!
It doesn't have to be intentional to be plagiarism. Omitting citations for other peoples' ideas or work is always considered plagiarism, whether this results from an intentional attempt to steal somebody else's credit or from not knowing that you were supposed to cite your sources.

Paraphrasing vs. Quoting

Do I need to cite something if it wasn't a direct quote?
Yes, you still need to cite the original source, even if you just paraphrase or summarize ideas or facts from that source without using a direct quote.

Can I make it easier by just giving everything in direct quotes?
No, you should only use direct quotes from the original source when the specific wording in the original is vital to making your point. I've had students turn in papers where literally less than half of the paper was their own words, as at least half of every page included sentence- or paragraph-long quotes from academic writings on the topic. While these quotes were cited correctly, only about four pages of writing was actually done by the student him or herself, which is not impressive for a ten-page research paper.

How Much Do I Need to Change when Paraphrasing or Summarizing?
You need to change enough that the wording is substantially your own. Some words or phrases will undoubtedly overlap with some of the original sources, especially when you are writing the names of people, places, or theories, but the summary of the basic ideas should be mostly yours. I've had students turn in entire papers that were lifted from encyclopedias or similar sources, thinking they had avoided plagiarism by changing a single word in every sentence; that was still substantially the work of the original author, not the student who turned in the paper.

Conclusion: When in Doubt, Cite
When in doubt, cite your source; it is always better to overdocument your research than to risk plagiarism by underdocumenting or assuming that something is common knowledge.

Additional Resources

Citations in the Text

By looking at your citation, a reader should be able to determine which source from your bibliography was used for a particular point, and where to look in that source (i.e., which exact page) if further research is needed.

Feel free to use any format that gets all of the information across. I personally prefer simply using the author's last name, a comma the year of publication, a colon, and the page number (as long as this uniquely identifies the source that is used -- other information may be needed if your bibliography includes several works by the same author that were published in the same year). Any of the following styles can be used, though, as long as they indicate which source was used and which page is being referenced. Similarly, I personally prefer using in-text (parenthetical) citations, but footnotes or endnotes may also be used.

In-text (Parenthetical) Citations:

It is generally considered preferable in many circumstances to give the author's name in the sentence itself, in which case the citation only needs to include the year of publication (to identify the source being used) and the page number in question:

Where this can not be done easily, or where it does not make as much sense, citations should be given at the end of a phrase or sentence and should include the author's name:

Footnotes or Endnotes

Footnotes and endnotes are not used as often in the social sciences as in-text citations, although certain other disciplines (and certain social science journals) prefer the use of footnotes or endnotes. In undergraduate papers, the choice between in-text cites, footnotes, and endnotes is generally up to the writer (unless the professor requests a particular format).

Note that the full bibliographic reference is not needed for footnotes or endnotes; the purpose of these notes is to indicate which source from the more detailed bibliography was consulted and which specific page was used. In general, the format of footnotes or endnotes should follow the format for in-text citations, as discussed above:


Citations in the text (whether parenthetical, footnotes, or endnotes) are kept brief and generally give the minimum amount of information required to identify the source of a specifuc piece information. The "Bibliography" or "References" section at the end of a paper, though, must give complete bibliographic citations, so that the reader can identify exactly which edition of which book (or which journal/magazine/newspaper issue) was consulted.

What to Include

Examples of Bibliographic Citations

The following table gives two examples of bibliographic citation formats for sources that are likely to appear in social science research papers. The two citation styles in this table, APSA (American Politican Science Association - related in many ways to Chicago/Turabian style) and APA (American Psychological Association) styles, are commonly used in the social sciences; more detail on both of these styles is provided at the end of this web page. I personally do not require that my students use any specific citation/reference style in their papers for my courses; any style that provides all of this information is acceptable to me -- but be aware, not all professors have this same attitude, and some will take off points if a paper uses something that is different from the assigned style).

Type of Source APSA Format APA Format
Single-Author Book Huth, Paul K. (1996). Standing Your Ground. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Huth, P.K. (1996). Standing Your Ground. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Single-Author Book (specific edition) Ziegler, David W. (1997). War, Peace, and International Politics,7th edition (or seventh edition). New York: Longman. Ziegler, D.W. (1997). War, Peace, and International Politics (7th ed.). New York: Longman.
Multi-Author Book Mansbach, Richard W., and John A. Vasquez (1981). In Search of Theory. New York: Columbia University Press. Mansbach, R.W., and Vasquez, J.A. (1981). In Search of Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.
Book Chapter Hensel, Paul R. (1999). "Charting a Course to Conflict: Territorial Issues and Interstate Conflict, 1816-1992." In Paul F. Diehl, ed., A Road Map to War. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, pp. 115-146. Hensel, P.R. (1999). "Charting a Course to Conflict: Territorial Issues and Interstate Conflict, 1816-1992." In P.F. Diehl (ed.), A Road Map to War (pp.115-146). Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
Journal Article Lemke, Douglas (1997). "The Continuation of History: Power Transition Theory and the End of the Cold War." Journal of Peace Research 34, 1: 23-36. Lemke, D. (1997). "The Continuation of History: Power Transition Theory and the End of the Cold War." Journal of Peace Research 34 (1), 23-36.
Newspaper Article (with a known author) Orme, William A. (1999). "Palestinians and Israelis Begin Final Round of Talks." New York Times Sept 14, p. A1. Orme, W.A. (1999, September 14). "Palestinians and Israelis Begin Final Round of Talks." New York Times, p. A1.
Newspaper Article (unknown author) New York Times (1999). "Palestinians and Israelis Begin Final Round of Talks." Sept 14, p. A1. "Palestinians and Israelis Begin Final Round of Talks." (1999, September 14). New York Times, p. A1.
Web Page Hensel, Paul R. (15 Jan. 2018 -- or Jan. 15, 2018 or 1/15/2018). "Paul Hensel's Citations and Plagiarism Page." (accessed 31 Jan. 2018 -- or Jan. 31, 2018 or 1/31/2018).
(Note that the first date is the date of the page's creation, assuming that this is listed somewhere on the page; the second date is the date you visited the page)
Hensel, P.R. (15 Jan. 2018). Paul Hensel's Citations and Plagiarism Page. [online] Available: (31 Jan. 201).
(Note that the first date is the date of the page's creation, assuming that this is listed somewhere on the page; the second date is the date you visited the page)

Additional Resources

American Political Science Association (APSA) Style

American Psychological Association (APA) Style

Chicago / Turabian Style

Modern Language Association (MLA) Style:
Last updated: 15 January 2018
This site © Copyright 1996-present, Paul R. Hensel. All rights reserved.