Consequences of Mild, Moderate & Severe Plagiarism

If you use someone else’s words or ideas without properly crediting them, you could be committing plagiarism. The consequences of plagiarism vary based on the severity of the offence.

Consequences of mild, moderate, and severe plagiarism
Level of plagiarism Examples Likely consequence
  • Source cited in text but left out of reference list
  • Quotation marks omitted around a quote
Grade penalty or automatic zero
  • Text copied from a source with a few words changed
  • Source paraphrased without citation
Failing grade on course
  • Patchwork of different texts passed off as original
  • Paper written by someone else
Academic probation or expulsion

Plagiarism can also have serious consequences in secondary school. Some secondary schools use plagiarism checkers and treat plagiarism the same way universities do, and university admissions officers will typically disregard your application if they find you’ve plagiarised any part of it.

What universities say about plagiarism

Plagiarism in university has serious consequences, even when committed by accident. You can usually find the details of your institution’s plagiarism policy and examples of plagiarism in your code of conduct. If you’re unsure about the specifics, ask your instructor.

Some examples from different institutions are shown below.

‘The University regards plagiarism in examinations as a serious matter. Cases will be investigated and penalties may range from deduction of marks to expulsion from the University, depending on the seriousness of the occurrence. Even if plagiarism is inadvertent, it can result in a penalty.’

University of Oxford

‘Plagiarism is dealt with very severely. All students suspected of plagiarism will be subject to an investigation. If found guilty, possible penalties include permanent withdrawal from the University.

‘If you are suspected of plagiarism, your school will hold a meeting where your case will be heard. If you admit the offence and it is deemed to be minor and a first offence, your penalty will be agreed by the school. If the case is more serious, or is not your first offence, your case will be referred to the Committee on Applications.’

University of Leeds

‘Any suspected cases of plagiarism will be investigated by the University. This might involve initially being interviewed by the Examiners and Proctors and could ultimately lead to suspension from the University or failure.’

University of Cambridge

‘Plagiarism of any kind is not acceptable and is contrary to the Code of Student Conduct.

‘The Code also sets out what action can be taken against those who have breached the Code – this can include a reduced mark or a penalty grade H (effectively a ‘zero’). Grade H for a core course or a core piece of work can mean you are unable to complete your degree.’

University of Glasgow

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Why is plagiarism so serious?

You might wonder why universities and other organisations impose such serious consequences for plagiarism, even when it’s accidental.

Plagiarism amounts to theft, and there are good reasons for institutions (and for you!) to take it seriously. Plagiarism:

  • Is dishonest: When done deliberately, plagiarism indicates that the person responsible is not honest about their work, which is a problem in any context.
  • Harms the person you’re plagiarising: It’s easy to see why you wouldn’t want your writing stolen and passed off as someone else’s – especially in publishing.
  • Hinders the learning process: If you’re stealing words and ideas from others, your own creativity is not being tested, and you’re not learning.
  • Obscures the sources of ideas: All academic writing builds on the ideas of others, and it’s important that the reader can clearly trace where those ideas came from.
  • Results in bad writing: Whatever the quality of the text(s) you’re plagiarising, a paper made up of a patchwork of different unacknowledged sources is usually a mess.

Frequently asked questions about plagiarism

What happens if you plagiarise?

The consequences of plagiarism vary depending on the type of plagiarism and the context in which it occurs. For example, submitting a whole paper by someone else will have the most severe consequences, while accidental citation errors are considered less serious.

If you’re a student, then you might fail the course, be suspended or expelled, or be obligated to attend a workshop on plagiarism. It depends on whether it’s your first offence or you’ve done it before.

As an academic or professional, plagiarising seriously damages your reputation. You might also lose your research funding or your job, and you could even face legal consequences for copyright infringement.

Is plagiarism illegal?

Plagiarism has serious consequences and can be illegal in certain scenarios.

While most of the time plagiarism in an undergraduate setting is not illegal, plagiarism or self-plagiarism in a professional academic setting can lead to legal action, including copyright infringement and fraud. Many scholarly journals do not allow you to submit the same work to more than one journal, and if you do not credit a coauthor, you could be legally defrauding them.

Even if you aren’t breaking the law, plagiarism can seriously impact your academic career. While the exact consequences of plagiarism vary by institution and severity, common consequences include a lower grade, automatically failing a course, academic suspension or probation, and even expulsion.

How is plagiarism detected?

Plagiarism can be detected by your professor or readers if the tone, formatting, or style of your text is different in different parts of your paper, or if they’re familiar with the plagiarised source.

Many universities also use plagiarism detection software like Turnitin’s, which compares your text to a large database of other sources, flagging any similarities that come up.

It can be easier than you think to commit plagiarism by accident. Consider using a plagiarism checker prior to submitting your essay to ensure you haven’t missed any citations.

What is self-plagiarism?

Self-plagiarism means recycling work that you’ve previously published or submitted as an assignment. It’s considered academic dishonesty to present something as brand new when you’ve already gotten credit and perhaps feedback for it in the past.

If you want to refer to ideas or data from previous work, be sure to cite yourself.

Can plagiarism be accidental?

Accidental plagiarism is one of the most common examples of plagiarism. Perhaps you forgot to cite a source, or paraphrased something a bit too closely. Maybe you can’t remember where you got an idea from, and aren’t totally sure if it’s original or not.

These all count as plagiarism, even though you didn’t do it on purpose. When in doubt, make sure you’re citing your sources. Also consider running your work through a plagiarism checker tool prior to submission, which work by using advanced database software to scan for matches between your text and existing texts.

Scribbr’s Plagiarism Checker takes less than 10 minutes and can help you turn in your paper with confidence.

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Tegan George

Tegan is an American based in Amsterdam, with master's degrees in political science and education administration. While she is definitely a political scientist at heart, her experience working at universities led to a passion for making social science topics more approachable and exciting to students.