Plagiarism is the act of taking words, ideas or information from others and presenting them as your own. While many plagiarists do this very deliberately, it’s also possible to do it simply through the lack of proper citation.
The reason for this lies in what your audience, in this case your instructors, expect from the work that you hand in.
When you turn in a work bearing your name, the expectation is that you are submitting work that you have done on your own. That’s part of what putting your name on an assignment means: that the work contained inside it is yours, unless expressly stated otherwise.
Therefore, when you use the work of others, it’s important to clearly and correctly cite that content to indicate that it isn’t your original work. Citations also show that you have done the proper research work and that you’ve consulted appropriate texts for your assignment.
Failure to cite basically means that you are claiming that the entire paper and all of its information as yours and, if that’s untrue, it’s plagiarism.
Where things become murkier is when one attempts to cite the work but does so incorrectly. This can include everything from simply using the wrong citation style (EG: Using MLA instead of APA or vice versa) to footnoting a passage lifted directly, but not quoting it.
Those cases depend heavily on the exact circumstances. If one simply uses the wrong citation style, an instructor may lower the grade, but wouldn’t consider it as plagiarism since the source is fully cited (just in the wrong way for that assignment).
However, in situations where the citation is neither correct nor complete, it can definitely still be considered plagiarism. For example, if you use a passage and don’t quote it, it doesn’t matter if you cite the source, because you only gave credit for the information, not the words.
Still, instructors often look at these cases differently and may be more lenient if there’s a clear attempt to not plagiarize. Such cases are often not treated as disciplinary matters but rather as problems with the assignment.
Those decisions are left up to your teachers. Since plagiarism is sometimes considered an offense where the intent of the accused doesn’t matter, your instructor and your school can choose to take strict action, even if you didn’t intend to plagiarize.
If you are unsure whether you are citing your sources adequately, the best thing you can do is talk with your instructor and and show them what you’re doing. Working with your instructor will ensure that you meet their standards of citation and let them know the issues you are struggling with.
That can go to great lengths to head off a plagiarism allegation before it starts and greatly help improve the grades you get when the assignment is returned.