When does plagiarism occur? Is there an established percentage, a rule of thumb, a saturation point that we can use to determine when plagiarism has taken place? Or is it simply that "plagiarism is plagiarism"? The answer may lie somewhere between the stark (and perhaps too simple) dictum and the convenience of ready-made measures. In most cases, the dictum can be applied appropriately: plagiarism is plagiarism.
However, there are in fact degrees of plagiarism: one can steal an entire paper, or a section of a paper, or a page, a paragraph or a sentence. Even copying phrases without credit and quotation marks can be considered plagiarism. In other words, paraphrasing done improperly can qualify as plagiarism.
So, there are several basic factors to consider when evaluating a case of possible plagiarism:
Potentially complicating the effort to identify plagiarism is the fact that each of the above basic factors can be combined with other factors, creating a range of possible plagiarism scenarios. Here, then, is a full list of possible scenarios, starting with the worst case:
The extreme and more obvious cases notwithstanding, the above scenarios provide us with some basic determining factors we can use when attempting to deal with allegations of plagiarism between authors.
Any discussion on a subject such as plagiarism must be founded on a few, basic ideas on which all can agree. A discussion will help refine our understanding, but we need to start with some accepted basics.
One such idea, as already mentioned, is that plagiarism is plagiarism, regardless of the amount having been copied. However, scale is important, especially in trying to determine an appropriate corrective action. Introducing scale as an important consideration also brings the idea of "consistency" into the discussion. Until the "Guidelines for Adjudicating Different Levels of Plagiarism" had been developed and approved, there had not been any measure or method for linking "scale" with a corresponding corrective action so that consistent and fair judgments may be reached across all IEEE organizational units and over the years. Early in the discussion, consistency was seen as a critically important subject for the successful development of effective guidelines.
Are there valid exceptions to the rules against plagiarism in technical writing?
The fundamental nature of scientific/technical writing on and reporting of research results is that so much of it is closely based on the archival literature. Is it not required for new work to call upon and use the work that has already been published, at least in order to establish a necessary level of authentication and validation? New work depends on the very close and careful use of the archive. Therefore, are exceptions to be made for scientific/technical writing where the rules against plagiarism are concerned?
Similarly, some opinion has it that since technical writing is not "literary" writing, i.e., not at the level of Shakespeare, it is therefore acceptable to use a "certain amount" of someone else's text without having to indicate the specific text, especially when a citation or reference appears in the vicinity of the copied material. The same school of thought would argue that the use of quotation marks and/or indented text to signify the use of someone else's text would interrupt the flow of the writing, would interfere with the reader's comprehension of the work, especially since there would be, by necessity, so much of it (quote marks or indents). Again, should the nature of technical/scientific/archival writing allow exceptions to the proper use of, in this case, quotation marks and/or indented text?
Paraphrasing will always be a difficult area to adjudicate. Since plagiarism involves not only the unacknowledged reuse of some else's words but also someone's ideas, it is possible to render a properly paraphrased section of text and still be open to a charge of plagiarism if proper credit for the idea has not been given. Even so, we should be able to agree that changing only a few words or phrases or only rearranging the original sentence order of another author's work will be defined as plagiarism.