The answer is simple: It’s both.
Regardless of where you look, the definition of plagiarism clearly includes both ideas and expression.
- Merriam-Webster defines plagiarism as “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own.
- Dictionary.com defines plagiarism as “an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author….”
- The University of North Carolina defines plagiarism as “the deliberate or reckless representation of another’s words, thoughts, or ideas as one’s own without attribution….”
Though it’s tempting to limit the definition of plagiarism to just words, mostly because that’s the easiest type of plagiarism to search for, plagiarizing an idea, thought or fact (at least one that isn’t common knowledge) is plagiarism just the same.
The reason for this is simple. Citation isn’t simply about giving credit for other people’s words. It’s about both giving credit to other people’s work that your writing is built upon and highlighting where your information came from.
While the giving credit to those whose work you’ve used is important, the latter part is also crucial not just to essay writing, but in research in general.
If a fact or thought you bring up in your paper turns out to be inaccurate or simply at odds with the teachings of the class, a citation can either help you make your argument or, at the very least, show your due diligence.
However, if the rules of citation and plagiarism only apply to when words are copied, then citations can’t perform these functions.
So, when it comes to whether plagiarism relates to ideas or words. The answer is both. You need to clearly quote and cite when you use someone else’s words and you need to do the same, minus the quotes, when you use their ideas.
Whenever you build your paper on the work of others, you should cite that effort, whether you are quoting it verbatim or not. It’s the fair thing to do to those who came before you, the best thing to do for your paper and the only way to guarantee that your paper doesn’t land you in trouble over plagiarism.