What to do when you’re accused of plagarizing

I’ve been wrongly accused of plagiarism twice, so here is a guide if it happens to you

So, you’ve been accused of plagiarism. What happens now?


The professor sat you down and/or sent you an ominous email, accusing you of plagiarizing some paper or assignment. The penalties for plagiarism at Pitt are severe, ranging from a letter in your file to an F in the course. Get caught multiple times and it’s suspension, or even expulsion, depending on how many.

We’re at the time in the semester where we are both handing in final papers and receiving our grades on them. This means that there will be scenarios where professors and students battle it out over plagiarism, which is defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as the “use [of] the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own words or ideas.”

But in order to handle this, you need to take a deep breath and calm down. Turn off the emotion side of your brain and flip on the logic side.

First of all, did you do it? This is the crucial question. There are three possible situations: you knowingly plagiarized, you unknowingly plagiarized, or you didn’t plagiarize at all.

If you knowingly plagiarized, you’re SOL. This article isn’t for you- you shouldn’t have cheated, and now you need to suffer the consequences. As a freelance writer who has actually been plagiarized, I have no sympathy for you, and you can stop reading this article now. Bye.

If you knowingly plagiarized, that's on you (photo courtesy of ecurrent.fit.edu)

If you knowingly plagiarized, that’s on you (photo courtesy of ecurrent.fit.edu)

If you unknowingly plagiarized (perhaps you cited a source wrong and didn’t include the citation after each line, or maybe you forgot you were quoting), I am more sympathetic. It happens. We make mistakes, and unfortunately, sometimes these mistakes are whoppers. (The third category, if you didn’t do it, we will get to in a moment).

If you unknowingly plagiarized, here is what you need to do. First, schedule a face-to-face meeting with your professor. If you can’t do that, whether because you’re already off-campus or your professor is, you need to set up a phone call. A face-to-face meeting is the best option, and if you have to come back to campus to do so, I encourage it, as this is your academic future at stake.

The next thing you need to do is understand that your professor is (rightfully) upset by this dishonesty, and he or she needs you to own up to it and take action to ensure that it never happens again. You also must apologize (clink the link for tips on how to construct a sincere, meaningful, forthright apology).

Prepare what you are going to say beforehand, and own up to your mistake and accept full responsibility. Acknowledge that you have harmed your reputation in the eyes of your professor, and that you have possibly lost his or her trust; express your regret that your teacher-student relationship has been damaged in this way).


An important thing to do is explain the actual error you made and show that you know what you did wrong and what to do next time to prevent it. Essentially, you’re saying (albeit in a much more proper and respectful way), “Here is where I fucked up. I own it, I apologize, and here is what I will do in the future to ensure that I do not fuck up like this again.” Even if you have to take one of the many citation courses Hillman Library offers, do it. Show your professor that you are truly remorseful and committed to change.

Think of this as the BP oil spill of your academic career. Except this time, when you commit to improving, you have to mean it. A professor, seeing your apology and repentance, is not likely to go forth with a formal plagiarism letter. It would be pretty merciless (although technically within their rights) to do so. At any rate, you decrease the likelihood of them doing so.

Consider this the BP oil spill of your academic career: a major disaster. But unlike BP, when you apologize, you have to mean it. (Photo courtesy of the Telegraph UK)

Consider this the BP oil spill of your academic career. But unlike BP, when you apologize, you have to mean it. (Photo courtesy of the Telegraph UK)

If you have been falsely accused of plagiarism, that is a different story.

The second accusation of false plagiarism that I experienced (and it is amazing how many other people I know have also been accused falsely; this is bordering on epidemic levels, and I am not sure what to think) is more meaningful than the first, as the first was more a suggestion of plagiarism that I easily refuted than an actual “I know you did this,” hard-line accusation.

I completed a paper for a class, and in that paper, I cited a book. However, I only used one page of that book. I found it on Google Books, where they show you a preview in lieu of the whole text. It just so happened that I could draw from these couple pages in the preview and work in a quote from them to strengthen my thesis (didn’t work–still got a B-). Thinking that I was showing intellectual depth by using a wide range of sources (AKA not a website), I cited the book as a whole. This cued the professor to think that I had purchased the paper online (there are sites that sell papers), and it ended up being my word against his.

Google Books: nearly the source of my downfall? (Photo courtesy of ccm.net)

Google Books: nearly the source of my downfall? (Photo courtesy of ccm.net)

The most likely false accusation of plagiarism against you that you’ll experience is something like my anecdote. Paper-purchasing sites are common, and professors are, understandably, on high alert for them. It’s rare that you’ll be accused of a different plagiarism scenario other than buying a paper online.

The first thing to do is reschedule a meeting with your professor. When I was called into his office, I became flustered and stammered in my explanation of how I wasn’t guilty. If there were a time I ever looked guiltier, I don’t remember it. My red-cheeked stuttering was not due to a twinge of conscience–I was simply caught off guard and having trouble explaining myself because of it.

I asked, politely, if it would be okay for me to reschedule a meeting. That way, I would have a more concrete, coherent argument to show that I hadn’t plagiarized, and it would be much more productive than my current pressure-cooked floundering. Thankfully, he agreed, and the meeting was set over email. I would email him at a certain time, and he would survey my case.

After I left his office, panicked and trembling (this was very terrifying for me, as visions of not getting into law school danced in my head), I went straight to my adviser’s office. Katherine Francis was wonderful. She suggested I show him how I’d come to my sources in order to prove I hadn’t cheated (she referred to it as the “trail of breadcrumbs”).

She then informed me of the Pitt appeals process. If he filed a formal accusation against me, I could appeal it. I would get a “G” grade in my file, which is essentially an on-hold grade. He couldn’t fail me if I appealed the process and demanded a fair hearing. I would need to go to the dean of the department of the class in which this was occurring, and my written statement would be collected. A hearing would be held in which I could plead my case.

This process seemed daunting. But it was also a relief. You could not be failed unjustly.


Fortunately for me, the proof I submitted to him was enough and although he did not apologize, he gave me a fair grade and we didn’t speak of the issue again. It was terrifying, though, and I knew that if someone else was experiencing this, they would desperately need advice as well.

So, to recap:

  1. If you’ve purposefully, knowingly plagiarized, sucks to be you.
  2. If you’ve unknowingly, unintentionally plagiarized, set up a face-to-face meeting with your professor (or a phone call) in which you admit responsibility, own the offense, apologize, and show that you understand what you did wrong and what you will do in the future to ensure that it never happens again.
  3. If you have been falsely accused of plagiarism, schedule another meeting with the professor besides the one in which you were accused. This will give you time to gather your thoughts, calm down, and build a solid case in your favor. If the accusation moves forward, you can appeal it and receive a “G” grade. A hearing will be held to determine whether or not you fail.

I hope this helps. Remember that the way in which you handle yourself under pressure is largely going to determine your outcome. Stay calm, no matter how frazzled you feel. Control the narrative, and you control the verdict.

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University of Pittsburgh