What is plagiarism? What types of plagiarism are there?

Are you unsure whether you’ve set down the citations correctly in your text? Do you perhaps suspect someone else of plagiarism? At a time when cases of plagiarism are on the increase, it’s worth looking in more depth at what constitutes plagiarism. As a plagiarism checker and expert witness in these matters, Evgenij Unker is able to explain the concept and provide an overview of the basic types of plagiarism.


Plagiarism is the unauthorised use of another’s ideas without a (correct) acknowledgement of the source. This does not just apply to texts. It can also concern any other form of creative or academic activity (art, film, design etc.). Similarly, plagiarism takes place from time to time in industry and commerce, where it is called ‘design plagiarism’.

We also often hear the term “theft of intellectual property”. But plagiarism is more than just a process: it results in a piece of work, or a part of a work, being falsely claimed by one who is not actually the author. That is the essence of plagiarism.

Contrary to popular opinion, ghost-writing commissions do not automatically result in instances of plagiarism. In the case of ghost-writing, someone commissions another to write a text for them, while being credited as the author afterwards. If the ghost-writer has not ‘lifted’ the text from a third party, no plagiarism has occurred. The author of the text has handed over to the customer who has purchased these services all rights to use the text, and has formally agreed that the originator of the text shall not be named.

Ghost-writing may, however, conflict with the law, where examination-level work is concerned, which may only be produced in person by the candidate.

Different Types or Variants of Plagiarism

The most common types of plagiarism are:

  • Total or word-for-word plagiarism. A text or part of a text is taken verbatim from another source, without attributing it to that source.

  • Plagiarism using altered text, attempted deception, or paraphrase. The text is used, but incorporating smaller or larger changes. The alterations may serve to integrate the plagiarised material into the text more smoothly, or to disguise the plagiarism.

  • The “pawn sacrifice” — giving a little away while concealing a lot. In relation to plagiarism, this means designating material as having been cited indirectly, while in fact it has been reproduced word for word. It is attributed to its actual source, but, although quoted verbatim, it lacks the quotation marks necessary to make this fact clear. Very frequently however, this ‘borrowing’ of another’s work extends beyond the place where the attribution is found — for example, to the preceding sentences or paragraphs, or those that follow.

  • Plagiarism of ideas. Here, ideas or insights have been taken, and used without acknowledging their origin.

  • Structural plagiarism. A type of plagiarism of ideas, in which the structure of a text is replicated (table of contents, organisation into chapters, sequence in which the material is presented).

  • Plagiarism in translation. The text or segment of text is translated from a foreign language without attribution.

  • Plagiarism of images: photos, artwork, illustrations, charts, tables and diagrams etc. can be entirely or partially plagiarised, if the true source is not mentioned or not cited correctly.

In practice, it is also possible to have a combination of these forms of plagiarism.

Have I committed plagiarism?

In most cases, you know better than anyone whether you have taken and used another’s wording or ideas without acknowledging your sources, and whether your source attributions are complete and correct. If, however, you are in fact unsure as to your method of citation, there are numerous academic style guides to help you, which explain how to deal with sources.

With the aid of the above list and definition, you will in most cases be able to see for yourself whether or not your work contains any plagiarism. Should you still be in doubt, you can, of course, seek professional advice.

How do I establish a plagiariser’s guilt?

Where your own works are concerned, you generally know what sources you have used, whereas in the case of others’ texts, you have in the first instance to rely on the author’s information. It’s hard to believe, but most of the plagiarism in academic works is actually taken from sources mentioned in the bibliography or in another place in the text.

Your second step can of course be to consult further online or offline sources on the subject. The total research involved can, however, become very wide-ranging and time-consuming. Furthermore, to pinpoint the instances of plagiarism requires a combination of intuition and a certain level of experience. If you wish to have someone else’s text subjected to a professional plagiarism check, you can at that point turn to a whole range of specialist plagiarism hunters.

Sources for This Article

In addition to my own practical experience as a plagiarism checker, I have used the following sources for this article:

Evgenij Unker

1 April 2014, last updated: 26 Feb. 2015

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