In college, plagiarism is serious business. But sometimes, students cross the line without even realizing it, says Melissa Anderson, a professor of higher education at the University of Minnesota.

“If it’s [copied] word for word, everyone knows it’s wrong,” said Anderson, who specializes in the field of academic integrity. But it can start to get tricky, she said, when students paraphrase other writers.

With charges of plagiarism swirling around two Minnesota college presidents, Anderson acknowledged that many students struggle with how to properly credit other authors in college papers.

“Every university has workshops and classes and tries to get the word out about how you can appropriately paraphrase work from the literature,” said Anderson. “By the time they’re in college, they really should know,” she added. “But some don’t get the message.”

In February, a blog site accused the presidents of two community colleges of lifting parts of their dissertations from other authors without proper citations. Both have defended their work, saying they repeatedly credited their sources.

The problem arises, says Anderson, when the wording is too close to the original. “You not only need to cite the [source], but you need to use the quotation marks when you’re using exact phrases,” she said. That’s not just common courtesy, she says; “there’s actually a federal policy on research misconduct” that covers plagiarism.

Today, it’s common to run students’ dissertations through plagiarism checkers — online programs that look for similar wording in the published literature. One goal is to find problems before they turn into public embarrassments. “If the student has quite innocently made an inappropriate statement, without attribution, those things should be caught,” Anderson said.

Why is it so important? Because, she said, “An academic’s ideas and words are his stock in trade. And there I’m paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln.”