In order to write, poets, novelists, and other authors don’t simply need a pen and paper—they also need inspiration. In fact, much of writers’ inspiration comes from the work of other writers, but they must be careful that any of their efforts to pay homage to their favorite authors don’t overstep the fine line that separates admiration with plagiarism and other types of academic dishonesty. However, steering clear of plagiarism isn’t just a task for creative writers: It applies for students, academics, journalists, politicians, and others. Take a look below for a crash course or a simple reminder on the pitfalls of plagiarism.

What is Plagiarism?

Merriam-Webster defines the act of plagiarism as “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another as one’s own” or “[to] use (another’s production) without crediting the source.” In other words, plagiarism is a practice in which an author attempts to pass off someone else’s work as their own, whether by directly copying their words, leaving off a footnote or citation, or some other method. While this definition presents plagiarism as an active process—which it often is—it is also possible to commit accidental plagiarism when an author forgets to properly cite sources, use quotes, change phrases, and so on.

Is Plagiarism a Crime?

Plagiarism is not itself a crime (although certain forms of plagiarism may qualify as copyright infringement). Just because plagiarism isn’t a criminal act, however, doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences for it. Many universities have strict anti-plagiarism policies that lead to suspensions or even expulsions for violating students, and in the professional world, plagiarism causes scandal and can be considered grounds for dismissal.

How Common is Plagiarism?

According to plagiarism.org, 36% of all undergraduates admitted to “paraphrasing/copying a few sentences from an Internet source without footnoting it” and 38% admitted to “paraphrasing/copying a few sentences from a written source without footnoting it.” In other words, more than one-third of all college students have engaged in some form of plagiarism during their academic careers. Rates of plagiarism in non-academic contexts are harder to measure.

How can it be prevented?

The best way to avoid plagiarism is to effectively cite your sources. Any time that you borrow from another author, be sure to indicate that through footnotes, bibliographic references, and so on. If you’re not sure whether or not you need to cite something, it’s better to err on the side of caution and just cite it anyway.