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The Fine Line between Research & Plagiarism

reseacrh or plagiarism?

Students, academia, researchers and other people who wish to take up scholarly pursuits, long have they tried to answer the eternal question:

‘When is the written word considered plagiarized and at what point does it not?’

They point to the quote which says that stealing from ‘one source is plagiarism and stealing from many is considered research.’ Is reproducing a quote word to word considered plagiarism in itself? Is highlighting your favorite passages from some other author’s works makes you liable to be sued?

The answer to all these questions is not simple. And even with the laws in place, plagiarism remains a murky term to define and codify into legislation. It’s a question that has answers and yet refuses to die down. That being said, there are certain rules and guidelines every researcher and scholar should be aware of when it comes to ‘copying’ and quoting sources in publications. Ethical and acceptable ways do exist.

To separate the wheat from the chaff (or to know when it’s research and when it’s outright plagiarism), there are some simple criteria one can employ to establish which is which.


If one is writing a thesis or undertaking any research, it is acceptable. In fact, it is required to come up with quotes. There are certain things to consider, such as:

1. The Target Audience or Market You’re Writing For

In academic, scientific, technical and professional journals, your audience expects you to quote the work of others so that you are in a better position to support your findings and arguments. It is pretty much the cornerstone of your researching efforts. As the author of your research, you need to be able to show you know what you are talking about and how much extensively you have researched on your topic. All your theories, ideas and statements need to be reinforced by the work of experts in the field.

As for the works and authors you quote, they welcome this. This way, their work gets highlighted and gets known to more people. Academia expects this and peers review your papers. The absence of quotes makes your research essentially poor. However, the situation is rather different if your audience comes from a consumer publication, such as a culture magazine. The audience as well as the magazine doesn’t need a flurry of footnotes to accompany your piece of writing.

2. When Background Research Information Is Required

When one tends to write for a large audience, the readers expect the author has done some kind of background research on the subject in order to lend it an air of authenticity. Even editors will ask you about your background research. Making things up is an absolute no-no. Even consumer publications expect writers to exercise some due diligence on this matter. It pays to tap into the reservoir of published sources of information for this purpose.

Let’s take an example. You are writing about the Mars Rover trip for the general audience. This subject might require you to quote a few technical facts for the interest of the audience. Say, for instance, you might want to tell your readers about the payload on the Rover. For this essential basic research, you will find it easier to quote people or facts and figures here.

3. Does Your Material Need References?

You can use direct quotes in an academic journal or even paraphrase them. You will need to create footnotes and complete references for other researchers in an academic paper. In a consumer publication, even though quotes can be used, there’s no need for accompanying footnotes. After all, the content isn’t geared towards academia but to a general audience.

The type of publication you are writing for also determines whether references and footnotes are required.

So, whenever you are writing, regardless of the type of publication it is, you have to tread the fine line between research and plagiarism with caution.

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