We have seen the definition of plagiarism numerous times on this site, more or less elaborated, but always in its core:

Plagiarism is passing someone else's work as your own

I am all for questions which ask to understand the concept better, or understand the importance of it better, or are encountering the concept of self-plagiarism for the first time as a young researcher and trying to understand that, or peculiar and particular situations involving plagiarism.

But, this recent question (and I believe I have seen more similar ones before it, which is why I am posting to the meta, but can't dig them out right now) basically asks:

I want to pass my friends work as my own, but additionally he owns a pink elephant. Is this still plagiarism?

(where owning a pink elephant could be any other completely irrelevant reasoning). It seems to me that this question (and many other alike) are basically asking:

Is plagiarism plagiarism?

The answer to this question does not really contribute anything new to the site, the OP could have found this information out by glancing on most of our plagiarism tagged questions, and all the answers just elaborate on "Plagiarism is passing someone else's work as your own.", which can be seen in many, many other questions.

I downvoted the question in question, as I think it is a bad question. I was also thinking of casting a close vote, but none of the reasons seemed to be quite on the spot. Ultimately, I don't think it's a good question, good fit, or worth keeping, but since I can see four up-votes on it, I was just wondering whether this is really the community opinion.

  • Different communication styles. You reformulate the question as "Is plagiarism plagiarism?" This makes the question sound really silly. However, the question was not that. Let me explain. Many people (me included) here are from maths and informatics. The way we (learned to) attack a problem starts with Step 0: Understand all definitions. So we start by looking up the definition of "plagiarism" and work with that. However, many people do not so. If you ever taught a inteoductory math class, you will know the problem: The students have to solve an exercise which is virtually just looking
    – guest3
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 21:58
  • up and writing down the definition (and then they would obtain the solution), but they fail. This is often hard for instructors to understand/explain, because we are used to think in a certain way. A user may not look up the definition of "plagiarism", only having a vague understand of some things related to this word which she heard at some point. They do not realise that their question can be reformulated so silly. Also, many people would not understand what their question has to do with a "pink elephant". Not all people think this abstractly to see the connection to their question.
    – guest3
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 21:58
  • On a related note: I have the impression that often when somebody asks something where the answer is clearly written somewhere, they are heavily downvoted and attacked ("what about this is unclear?" "Why do you ask the question when the answer is written exactly on this website?").
    – guest3
    Commented Feb 21, 2019 at 10:19
  • 1
    I come from a country/culture, where what is written/what is the truth is often not the same. (E.g. it is not uncommon that the syllabus says "written exam on February 18", but if you never ask the professor about when the exam is, it could happen that he just says at some point "by the way, the exam will be oral and on February 8, before and afterwards there will be no exams"). Websites (e.g. for applications) often have strict rules - but in reality, if you talk to people, you find out that you don't need everything the website says etc. With this I want to say: Even if there
    – guest3
    Commented Feb 21, 2019 at 10:19
  • are well-defined rules about what plagiarism is, I do not find it unbelievable that people (from certain cultures) are unsure about whether or not they are followed.
    – guest3
    Commented Feb 21, 2019 at 10:20

2 Answers 2


Every single semester, I explicitly teach my students a slightly more elaborate version of

Plagiarism is passing someone else's work as your own

And every semester, there is at least one instance of plagiarism by a student who has an existing (wrong or incomplete) understanding of what plagiarism is, and doesn't recognize the difference between what I told them and what they had previously understood.

For example, I think in that specific question, the OP had previously heard something like "If your project is the same as one of your classmates' projects, it's going to be flagged as plagiarism". When someone who has heard this reads

Plagiarism is passing someone else's work as your own

they may think, "Well, I've heard it's plagiarism if I submit a classmate's work as my own, so that definition is basically the same as what I've heard". Then, given that (mis)understanding, they may still think it may not be plagiarism if they're not plagiarizing from a literal "classmate".

I don't think this misunderstanding is unique to the OP of that question - I've come across this before. I do think there is some value to explicitly addressing common misunderstandings of plagiarism in the Q&A format.

  • a kind of confirmation bias, you may say?
    – Ooker
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 5:56
  • 1
    Well, I guess the question has received some attention now and it's generally positively received, so I got my answer. I just hope that when somebody else asks "Me and a friend got a same assignment at different Universities because the professor gives the same course at two Unis", we can mark it as a duplicate of this one even tho it says "different colleges same Uni", and don't need to explicitly address that difference (or some similar similar situation).
    – penelope
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 12:14
  • Couldn't have put it better than this answer. :)
    – 299792458
    Commented Feb 23, 2019 at 15:27

Let me say a few things about a more general issue. Most of the questions like this and other similar repeated questions come from newcomers with rep 1 or 101 and little experience elsewhere. Many don't know how the site operates nor what they can learn from tags until they get a bit more experience.

Likewise many newcomers don't know to distinguish this site from a "chatty" email list and so write some things that are superfluous. Comments in particular often become chatty.

I think we need to be a bit tolerant of all such novice "errors" and pass them to the help page or otherwise help them.

OTOH, self plagiarism is a special issue since, IMO, it isn't universally understood. Ten or so years ago few worried much about it, especially novice researchers, of whom we see a lot here. So, repeating the definitions, and the reasons behind them, seem to me to be a good thing.

But it would also be good to have a way to mark canonical questions and answers so that those who want to help can quickly find a way to redirect the OP to the answers they need before there is too much redundancy in the site.

  • I totally agree, especially on the last part. It would be great to have a general question/answer where one can redirect OP, like it is usually done with the "What does the peer-review state $whatever mean?" questions that are redirected to "What does the typical workflow of a journal look like?". Commented Feb 22, 2019 at 8:21

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