In general, as long as you do so unknowingly, you won’t be held liable for citing a plagiarized source.
The reason for this is fairly simple: You only have control over what you do with your writing. You can not be held responsible for what others did in their writing. As long as you cite your sources correctly and choose your sources in good faith, you shouldn’t be held responsible.
That being said, this points to one of the reasons it is important to cite your sources. If one of the sources you use turns out to be plagiarized, inaccurate or otherwise invalid, it has an impact on your paper and your arguments.
However, it is only with full and complete citations that a reader can make that determination. Though it’s never pleasant to have your work damaged because a source you used turns out to be less-than-stellar, if you use multiple sources and vet them well, your argument and research should remain largely intact.
That being said, when you are researching a topic, you still have an obligation to find the best sources that you can. This means, among other things, evaluating your sources critically to make sure that they are free of biases, fabrications or other ethical issues.
While there are many tests one can use for evaluating sources, one of the most popular is the CRAAP test, which looks at five different variables.
- Currency: How recent is the information?
- Relevance: How pertinent is the information to what you are discussing and is it aimed at the correct audience?
- Authority: Who is the author of the piece and how qualified are they to speak on it?
- Accuracy: How accurate is the content and can it be verified with other sources?
- Purpose: Why was the information published and what potential biases might that purpose inject into the material?
But while the CRAAP test, and ones like, are useful, the main key is to think critically about your sources and not just accept them because they reflect your preconceived notions or even your earlier findings. Looking at sources objectively means seeking out reasons they may be flawed and then seeing if those flaws outweigh their strengths.
Despite that, it’s possible to do your best due diligence with your sources and still put faith in one that turns out to be plagiarized. Such stories should be incredibly rare occurrences, but they can and do happen.
As a researcher, your best bet is to focus on vetting your sources carefully and selecting the best ones possible. If, despite your best efforts, plagiarism is found in one of those sources you can’t be held responsible.
However, if you’re doing the vetting properly, such issues should be extremely unlikely.