Literal and Intelligent Plagiarism: Students Beware!

Literal and Intelligent Plagiarism: Students Beware!

M. Jagadesh Kumar, NXP (Philips) Chair Professor, Dept of Electrical Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, INDIA. Email:

(How to cite this article: M. J. Kumar, “Literal and Intelligent Plagiarism: Students Beware!”,  IETE Technical Review, Vol.29 (3), pp.181-183, May-June 2012.)

Academic plagiarism has become like a viral fever that can affect even a healthy person if sufficient preventive measures are not taken. Untrained research students, who need to write good quality research papers under tight time constraints, are usually the victims. It is not uncommon for research supervisors to experience a psychological burden while approving the student’s paper for submission to a journal or a conference. Who knows if a sentence copied by the student while writing a research paper may be detected years later, subjecting the research supervisor to a great embarrassment. When the supervisor asks them to be careful about plagiarism, the students may also feel that they are being treated with suspicion. Let us look at how incautious writing of a research paper can lead us to this potential plagiarism risks.

You write a research paper when your experiments are complete and you feel that the results are unique and a significant advancement in knowledge. Research papers typically contain an abstract, an introduction, experimental details, analysis of results including tables and figures, conclusions and a list of references. Preparing figures or tables, analyzing the results and making conclusions are the easier tasks of writing a research paper since you must have spent a couple of years working on the problem. However, writing the introduction of the paper is the most difficult task and is often written at the end just to make sure that no important points of rationale that support your work are left out.  The reader should get an overall picture and important highlights of your contribution after reading the introduction so that he is enticed to delve further into your paper.

In the introduction, you briefly survey the field, and identify the limitations of the known approaches to justify why you have taken up the current research problem. You then go on to state the results you have obtained and why they are important in the present context. You may also highlight the limitations of your work in the broader context. In my view, writing the introduction part of a research paper is not easy because this is where you are making that emphatic selling point for your research. Students are generally clueless on writing the introduction to the research paper since it requires taking a broader view of the research area. This invariably leads them to read a variety of published papers to look for leads on how to build their case as the most novel and original idea with respect to the knowledge already known.

Borrowing a few words from others sentences to beautify the sentences in your own manuscript by itself cannot be called plagiarism as long as you have not borrowed the ideas. However, students whose native language is not English or those who are not fluent in English are tempted to use the easier way of “copying and pasting” of entire sentences. This is called literal plagiarism. The introduction of a thesis or a research paper is the one where you will find most cases of literal plagiarism. Even if cosmetic changes are made in the sentences, it does not keep you from being called a plagiarist. Let me illustrate this with an example. The following  sentences are from my research paper.

Original text: Bipolar transistors exhibit a number of significant advantages such as well-controllable characteristics, high speed, high gain, and low output resistance. These are excellent properties for mixed-signal circuit design and analog amplifiers. An emergent trend in modern high-density Very Large Scale Integrated circuits is the integration of bipolar transistors with complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) technology on thin silicon-on-insulator (SOI).

Let us say an author copies the above text in his paper with slight modifications (in italics) as given below.

 Copied text with minor modifications: Bipolar transistors show a number of significant advantages such as well-controllable characteristics, high gain, high speed, and small output resistance. These are useful characteristics for mixed-signal circuit design and analog amplifiers. A modern trend in high-density VLSI circuits is the integration of bipolar transistors with CMOS technology on thin silicon-on-insulator (SOI).

Carefully check the above two paragraphs. There are only a few changes in the choice of words. The modified and copied text will still be considered as literal plagiarism if the original source is not cited at the end of the copied text. I would even suggest that you put the modified and copied text in quotes or in italics and cite the original reference. This is to make sure that the reader is aware that the material has been taken from a different source. But this does not mean that you put every sentence in a written paragraph in quotes followed by a reference. This indeed has happened with one of my students. He brought a manuscript in which every alternate sentence is in quotes followed by a reference number. Such a collection of quotes does not lead to any original intellectual contribution and looks awkward.

If you examine the original text given above, it has three sentences. The first/second sentence is a general statement about bipolar transistors and therefore is standard stuff. However, the third sentence conveys an idea or a thought attributable to the original author. Only an expert working in the field could say it authoritatively. When the student copies a statement or thought from another paper because that sentence perfectly conveys what the student wanted to say, there is another danger. You might have copied an idea too along with the language of the sentence. You might not have used this idea in your paper. However, you have failed to acknowledge that the original author is the one who has presented that point of view. This is called idea adoption. If the plagiarist tries to hide the original source to represent the idea as his own during the idea adoption, it leads to intelligent plagiarism.

What we tend to forget is that it is not possible for two different human beings to exactly write the same set of sentences on a given idea. If you have watched a nice movie and wanted to convey the story to your friend, I am sure you would tell it in your own words. We can similarly summarize a written text without the need to copy from the original source. Let me re-write my original text given above to illustrate how you can avoid literal plagiarism.

Modified text: The significant advantages of bipolar transistors are (i) well-controllable characteristics, (ii) high speed, (iii) high gain, and (iv) low output resistance. These benefits make them highly useful in mixed-signal and analog amplifier circuit design. Integration of bipolar transistors with complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) technology on thin silicon-on-insulator (SOI) is an emerging trend in modern high-density VLSI integrated circuits.

While there is no literal plagiarism in the above paragraph, the view-point expressed in the last sentence needs a citation of the original source although the view-point is re-written. However nicely you may summarize an idea of another author, you must remember that the idea is not yours and must, therefore, acknowledge the original source. Failure to do so can land you in intelligent plagiarism which is even more malicious compared to literal plagiarism.

Students beware! When you indulge either in literal plagiarism or intelligent plagiarism either knowingly or unknowingly, you are putting all the authors in the manuscript at risk. Detection of plagiarism after publishing the paper can result in serious consequences to the organization where you work, and can severely damage your reputation and that of the co-authors.

Academic institutes should evolve an enforceable policy defining the boundaries between fair use and plagiarism and make this policy widely available to their communities via their websites. This plagiarism policy should help the academic communities in improving their self-awareness about (i) what constitutes plagiarism and (ii) the consequences of plagiarism. Providing easy access to plagiarism detection tools through campus wide licensing will make it easier both for the students and the faculty to keep out of situations that can be classified as plagiarism.

We need to recognize that while plagiarism is bad, we can definitely prevent it from happening through good practices.


The above article is posted on the following websites:

Indian Institute of Technology Delhi ; ;       Biochemical and Biotech Engineers Association ;       National Institute for Interdisciplinary Science and Technology (NIIST)  ; Tomorrow’s Professor blog

University of Windsor; Florida Gulfcoast University; Delhi University, India;

Appeared in TOMORROW’S PROFESSOR  MAILING LIST sponsored by Stanford University’s Center for Teaching and Learning.  CLICK HERE

You may also like to read “Honestly speaking about academic dishonesty“.

About Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar

Chairman, University Grants Commission, Professor of Electrical Engineering, IIT Delhi, 12th Vice-Chancellor, JNU (Jan 2016 - Feb 2022), New Delhi
This entry was posted in Education and Research and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

53 Responses to Literal and Intelligent Plagiarism: Students Beware!

  1. Nexus55 says:

    This nicely brings out clarity on the idea which most of student community is unclear of and confused about.
    Thanks sir for taking time out and writing this.

  2. Sutar Kailasnath B says:

    I feel very fortunate to read this article as I am on the verge of writing the first research article. Definitely this article will help the students like me while writing the research paper.

  3. lookingup says:

    Thank you for this well-written article that clearly points out what acts can be construed as plagiarism. Goes well with the quote by Tennessee Williams at the top of this page!

  4. Rajesh.V.M. says:

    Excellent advice to the research students………..

  5. .. says:

    I am about to complete my papers..thank you sir for enlightening with the post..The post is excellent and definitely going to help me.

  6. Ashutosh Kumar Srivastwa says:

    Thank you sir. This is an excellent article. I had faced the same problem during my mid term report writing . It will be very useful when I will write my final report as well as research paper

  7. Bat Tihom says:

    Sir, I have a query. If there is something already innovated and the same idea occurs to me but on my own i.e. I am not aware whether it is already innovated so I implement it.

    Will it be plagiarism?

    According to me, it should’t be called plagiarism since I did it on my own. But when others see it, they may find it as plagiarism as they might think that I have copied from that innovation.

  8. says......... says:

    It is a very good thought, we can improve our reseach work.

  9. shweta singh says:

    Its really very helpful. I am sure that all the research scholars need this information.
    Thanks sir.

  10. student says:

    Thank you sir, your article had cautioned us against plagiarism which we would have otherwise taken lightly …

  11. gayathri says:

    Like your previous article on plagiarism, this too is an eyeopener on the different ways it can be done. My personal opinion is that, English language or the lack of it is the problem that many face. In the end they choose the easier way of cut, copy and paste.

  12. Rehan Khatri says:

    great work !! Will follow your guidance for sure $$$

  13. Muksit says:

    Thanks sir for sharing such an important issue which troubles all researchers….its very helpful for us…

  14. Sriram.K says:

    This is a nice write up and is very helpful to students. No lecturer of mine in India ever broached at this issue. Your article brings back some memories and takes me back to school days.

    As a class 6 student in Germany I made a toy motor boat as part of a school project. All of us in class 6 at Stefan Broadmann Schule Immenstad did the carpentry for it, attached a motor to it as well. The end product was that we all had a toy motor boat of our own. After returning to India in 1992 this motor boat of mine was just lying in the showcase doing nothing until the daughter of a close family friend of ours conveniently borrowed it for her class 12 Physics project. This was the first time my parents spoke to me about originality of ideas and the importance of acknowledging the sources of ideas. Until then it never struck me that someone had just very conveniently completed a project without doing the hard yards for it. Reflecting back I don’t blame that girl for doing so as I might have been guilty of the same on different occasions. We were all a part of a system that didn’t have a concept of discouraging blatant copying of ideas/work. I was only fortunate that my parents instilled in me the concept of trying to make my own work as original as possible and also the importance of writing up a proper acknowledgement section. For the rest of my peers it was the concept of “Chalta Hai, Yeh sab koi nahi dekhta” at play as the system my peers and I were part of, had no concept of discouraging plagiarism and acknowledging sources of ideas.

    I got introduced to the word ‘Plagiarism’ during my IDP orientation before joining RMIT. Prior to that, I admit quite shamelessly that whilst I had an idea of the Plagiarism concept thanks to my parents, I had never heard of such a word. IDP briefed us on the repercussions of Plagiarism during an interactive session. Upon my arrival in Melbourne we had an orientation week prior to commencement of semester. Once again the university conducted briefing sessions and provided literature and points of contact pertaining to plagiarism. These resources also had tips on how to acknowledge ideas and work. Post orientation week, classes commenced and every professor in his first lecture yet again spoke about Plagiarism. At no point did any of us get a feeling that the professors are being suspicious about of our work. We just knew that they were following the prescribed ethical norms of a system. See this link below about how RMIT educates students and staff about Plagiarism

    I did a search on Plagiarism on the IIT Delhi website and saw “Your search yielded no results” What you are trying to present is commendable. I am not sure whether IITs and other educational systems have anything similar to what is there in the link I included above. If not, you are going out of your way to educate students. The message that you are trying to convey is something that has to come from our educational system from a very early stage.


    Perth, Western Australia

  15. While reading the above article on plagiarism, my mind was, in the background, making notes on the points which should actually be avoided in any write up that is supposed to be published. I specifically liked the part where you have shown, with the help of an example, how to put such thoughts in a paper whose idea has already been conveyed before in a different manner.

  16. Jayanthi says:

    A very well written article cautioning us and drawing attention to what plagiarism could constitute. As research scientists, we tend to concentrate on the experimental part and when it comes to writing/ documentation, we are not even aware that ‘copying sentences and phrases “ from similar work to incorporate into our ‘introduction and discussion ‘ can amount to plagiarism.

  17. M A Sunil says:

    Very nice article and worth reading it.

  18. Tam says:

    Your blog helps us to understand about Plagiarism. Hereafter, I will keep your tips in my mind while writing my paper.

    Thanks a lot.

  19. Reblogged this on "Random" thoughts and commented:

  20. An excellent article. It is indeed very important for students to be careful while writing technical articles. Many people are unaware that copy-paste is actually an offense! A must-read article for all students.

  21. R Jayabalan says:

    Respected Professor,
    It gave me a clear idea of “what is really a plagiarism”. I was not aware of literal and idea plagiarism.. Now I understood the importance of quoting references although I do it regularly. As you said, writing introduction is very difficult part in writing a research article. Whatever we write, some general points must have been written by some other authors. It is good that you have come up to share your ideas about plagiarism which gave an excellent exposure about it. Thank you Professor.

  22. Korak Sarkar says:

    Thank you sir for this great article. It will be very helpful for every research student while writing research articles.

  23. If students and researchers are not good at writing skills, it is ok. He/she can take help from English text editors. We can see many incompetent researchers who are greedy in publications. For those of them, my advice is to cut those useless and plagiaristic material at the reviewing stage…..

    Controlling students and letting their supervisors into troubles, is not our control, but we can easily control at the reviewing stage !!!

  24. Interesting paper, a good summary of the problem, which should be required reading for post-graduate students.
    I was once addressed by a scientific journal to be the referee of a submitted paper. When I read it, I found that most of the introduction was literally copied from the introduction of one of my own papers. The paper was referenced, but in regards to a different point.
    The section plagiarized (about one page long) was not important, as it only included general information and no actual ideas were involved, but I did not like it anyway, and informed the journal of the fact.

  25. Rajiv Senapati says:

    Thank You sir for sharing such an important issue regarding writing research papers ….its very helpful for us…

  26. Lakshminarayana Sadaivuni says:

    Dear Sir,
    I mentioned ‘Anti-plagiarism certification be an academic mandate’ in my article DOI: 10.1002/asi.20932 published in Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology Volume 59, Issue 13, page 2194, November 2008. I hope you appreciate the method of identification of plagiarism.

  27. sumeet says:

    A knowledgeable yet simple article throwing adequate light on plagiarism and its implications. The further simplification with the help of an example is what makes it even easier to understand.

    A complete comprehension of plagiarism and ways to do away with are a must for every “newbie” (like me :)..)in the field research. Sir many thanks for such an article.

  28. It is a good article.

    It is unfortuante that with the advancement of internet and IT communication, “Copy, Cut and Past’ has almost become a regular practice. I am a reviewer to some research journals. One day, while reviewing a paper, I was shocked to read half a page from one of my research papers!

    In this connection, please read the article by K R Rao in Current Science (Curr. Sci. Vol.94, No.5, pp:581 – 586, 10 March 2008). My comments on the same have appeared in Current Science, Vol.94, No. 10, 25 May 2008.

    Dr. Arun Bapat, Research Seismologist

  29. Madhusudan Reddy K says:

    Good article…which helps students while writing a paper….and much needed issue to be aware of these days for research scholars….Thanks a lot, Sir!!

  30. Sahaya Jude Dhas . S says:

    Sir………….It is indeed an eye opener for many of those doing research. Please continue your good work.

  31. Absolutely great brilliant original stuff, please.. Why not someone undertake a ‘clean’ research on plagiarism and compile to publish the final product without any traces of ‘plagiarism’ of any kind whatsoever. However a lurking ‘super plagiarist’ must also be reading my original comments too..!!

    With very personal regards and best wishes
    (Retd.Sr.RBI Executive, Ex Bank Director)

  32. thetechiegeekpranav says:

    Thanx for sharing it sir 🙂

  33. Manoj says:

    The irony is that many students and researchers are not aware of this word “plagiarism”.
    Thanks for the article.

  34. pradeep kumar says:

    It must be read by every researcher.

  35. Anil Yadav says:

    I personally feel that it is a great article for research scholars and it motivates me to write a paper honestly.

  36. Govinda.H.S. says:

    I read your article on plagiarism. It is a highly useful write up. But I wonder if any one indulges in such a thing wantonly. Inadvertent cases can be there. However I will share this article with many of my young friends doing research.


  37. Sc says:

    Thank you Sir.

  38. madhukar says:

    Thank you so much

  39. BM says:

    Yeah its so true. It made me go back to the research paper I wrote 2 years ago and wonder whether I had used intelligent plagiarism. Well, have to be very careful from now on. Unfortunately while IIT probes you to write research papers, the focus on plagiarism is not so dominant. This was a good pointer that really helped.
    PS: The strategic placement of this article on IIT site was useful in highlighting the issue.

  40. Venkatesh says:

    Thanks sir. This article really helps us. It clarifies how plagiarism is classified. Tools must be provided in all the institutes to prevent plagiarism while writing a paper.

  41. Pingback: TP Msg. #1178 Literal and Intelligent Plagiarism: Students Beware! | Tomorrow's Professor Blog

  42. schlind says:

    Reblogged this on Blog von schlind und kommentierte:
    Für Masterstudenten und Doktoranden gerade in den Naturwissenschaften zutreffend beschreibt Kumar sehr anschaulich, wie und wann es zu Plagiarismus kommt und welche Konsequenzen folgen. Das Lesen und Verstehen dieses Blogartikels sollte ein Muss für jeden Masterstudenten und Doktoranden sein.

  43. Deepti says:

    Sir, Very nice article…
    But I wanted to inform about one literal plagiarism case avaialble at:

    And University is not even replying to the email sent by the original author.

    I request every one reading this message, to comment on the above link. This will bring some pressure on the university…

  44. ranjan says:

    Very nice.

  45. vetrivel S says:

    Nice write-up… any plagiarism detection software available ……………please reply………..

  46. Zafar says:

    Thanks for a crystal clear treatment of the topic. It is worth keeping in mind while writing my thesis.

  47. sekata olika says:

    Thanks sir. It is very interesting.

  48. Deepak says:

    You have managed to erase the misconception about plagiarism. A wonderful article for researchers. Deepak Kulkarni

  49. Jisha says:

    Thanks for this article! I’ve got a seminar coming up and we have to submit abstracts and papers. Being a first timer, I might have committed such errors. It was a big help! 🙂

  50. Rashid Abbas Ansari says:

    I read your article which is quite informative. Plagiarism is still
    prevalent in research fraternity particularly when a position high in the
    ladder is important more than a quest for truth which is the uttermost
    objective of any research.

    However, among Indian students this can be attributed largely to the way
    the students are groomed by the evaluative system over the period. I can
    recall from my childhood that I was given more marks for verbatim
    reproduction of answers from text books while writing answers to the
    questions than writing answers in my own comprehension.

    Evaluative system to date is more or less the same. Now my child faces it.
    Such kind of evaluative system prevents students from original thinking.
    That is why despite having a highly talented nation we still do not find a
    place in the list of top twenty innovations of the last century.

    I think educationists like you should try to change evaluative system so as
    to promote original thinking among students.

    Rashid Abbas Ansari
    DG:AIR, New Delhi.

  51. Dr Akash Sabarwal says:

    This piece will indeed assist young researchers to improve their writing and avoid both literal and intellectual plagiarism.

  52. Another problem faced by many research students is the limitation of softwares developed for detecting plagiarism. For eg, turnitin is one of them recommended by UGC. The software catches lines from material and methods or from many standard lines used in certain subjects. For eg if I write ‘cancer is one of the deadly diseases which causes millions of deaths globally’ or the human lung cancer adenocarcinoma cells were purchased from ATCC, DMSO was purchased from Sigma’. I am sure these lines would be marked by the software as copied. We need to develop more intelligent softwares in future. Sir, do you have any suggestions on this.

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