As scary as a plagiarism allegation can be, in general, there’s no reason to fear such an allegation if you write an original work and cite your sources correctly.
However, this doesn’t mean that students are never surprised by a plagiarism allegation. This is because there’s often a significant difference between simply citing a source and citing it correctly.
For example, if you use verbatim text from a source but don’t put that text into quotes, you could still be accused of plagiarism even if you did cite it. After all, citation isn’t merely listing the sources that you use, but explaining exactly what text, facts or ideas came from each one.
But, even if you quote and cite all of your sources correctly, there is another issue to consider: Collusion.
Though not the same as plagiarism, it’s a related ethical infraction that applies when two students collaborate improperly on an assignment. In short, if you and another student (or students) have a significant overlap in your work, you can face allegations of collusion, even with proper citations for the sources in your paper.
Some assignments place severe restrictions on the sources students can use or how they can complete the task. In those cases, there may be significant overlap between student submissions. However, in these cases, it’s generally understood that students papers should look alike, meaning collusion allegations should not be a problem.
But what if there are no issues at all. What if everything in the paper is fully cited and there is no collusion nor significant overlap with other student papers. Can a paper still get its author accused of plagiarism?
Generally speaking. No. At least as long as the paper is properly examined.
Any original paper is likely to have some text that overlaps with other sources. Plagiarism detection tools often pick up cliches, common phrases, long titles, etc. that are not examples of plagiarism.
Because of this, a 0% matching score is often as suspicious as a high percentage, simply because it’s difficult to ensure that a paper has no overlapping text at all.
Instructors have to be careful not to rely solely on percentages when determining if a paper is plagiarized. It’s important to look at the content of the paper to determine what text is matching, if it’s fully cited and whether it’s actually an issue.
Plagiarism detection software is powerful tool for helping spot potential plagiarism, but it can not make the final determination on its own.
The relatively small number of cases where a wholly original paper is accused of plagiarism usually stem from this issue and can generally be corrected pretty easily.
Still, the most common way for a student to get hit with a surprise plagiarism allegation is by failing to completely cite their work, despite their best efforts. If you have questions or concerns about citation, it’s important to take them up with your teachers before you submit a paper.
If you communicate and work with your teacher on these issues, you’re unlikely to face a plagiarism allegation, even if you do happen to make a mistake.