Peer-reviewed Mis-attribution

(for an overview, see: mis-attribution)

The simplest type of mis-attribution, peer-reviewed mis-attribution is the substituting, as the source of an idea, an invalid but real source for the valid one.

Why would you want to do this?

To create the illusion of having done more research than you really have. If, for example, you're writing a paper with a minimum research requirement of five sources, and you've only cracked two books, then you would take the titles of three other books or articles and use them to source information you've gotten from the pair you've actually looked at.

The key is to use existing, not made up, sources.

If you're not comfortable using peer-reviewed mis-attribution on its own, then consider reinforcing it with a well-placed decoy.

see also: foreign mis-attribution
see also: ghost mis-attribution
see also: the foreign source

The Decoy

A decoy can be defined as any technique that intentionally draws focus away from real plagiarism. However, it is usually an easy-to-spot and tempting "mistake" that you want your teacher to notice, so that he or she fails to notice something else.

There are many types of decoys—and many more undiscovered ones. But the key to implementing any decoy is a proper mindset.

see also: the blank footnote

The Blank Footnote

(for an overview, see: the decoy)

One of the most versatile and elastic tools in the plagiarist's arsenal: the blank footnote, the lone number, the joker. Much like a being dealt a wild card in a game of crazy academia, the blank footnote allows you to turn any situation to your immediate advantage.


By relying on your teacher's good will and laziness. Faced with an ambiguous situation ("Oh, dearie, what does this blank footnote mean?"), he or she will usually give you the benefit of the doubt. And benefits of the doubt are ripe for exploitation.

Use of the blank footnote is, however, limited to once (maybe twice) per teacher. Anything more, and your game gets obvious.

But, since you can use it once, let's take a look at what it can do:

1. A blank footnote can be a type of mis-attribution. Have a lot of words that aren't backed up by anything and need them supported? Stick a blank footnote near the end! A little number does wonders for making your scholarship suddenly look more solid. After all, you obviously meant to fill it in and simply forgot, right?

2. You can also use a blank footnote to hide plagiarism. Although it may seem illogical to draw attention to plagiarism by intentionally footnoting it incorrectly—your teacher will undoubtedly notice—that's the point: he or she will usually let it slide ("Oh, dearie, I'm sure Johnny meant to write the correct footnote in and he just forgot"). Yes, you may get docked a few marks for improper notation, but the plagiarism will stand. Plus, if on the rare chance you get called out for plagiarism and called in to talk to the teacher, you'll have an easy defense.

3. The blank footnote can also be used to break up sections of your essay that draw too heavily one source—an easy-to-spot flaw and one your teacher will most definitely dock you for. So disguise it. Break up large chunks of repeated notes by inserting a blank one. Visuals are important.

4. Finally, the blank footnote can be a type of decoy. Use it as a one-off to draw attention away from something else. Since it's easy to see and easy to comment ("Oh, dearie, Johnny, remember to proofread your footnotes before you hand in your essay"), teachers will love to pounce on it. And once a paper has enough comments and marks taken off to justify moving on to grading the next paper, your teacher will.

The blank footnote is plagiarism's utility player. Used properly, it can be a game-breaker.

Ghost mis-attribution

(for an overview, see: mis-attribution)

Ghost mis-attribution is the attribution of a non-existent source to an original idea, with the intention of granting academic legitimacy to that idea.

Playing with ghost mis-attribution is a juggling act. You can't survive on phantom sources alone! Ghost mis-attribution can, however, be vital in bolstering your own argument at a key time or as a last-minute time saver. It's quite versatile, as well: use it to cite an idea you got from a place you can't remember, use it to cite an idea you've made up, or use it to break up a series of citations from the same real source.

At its core, ghost mis-attribution relies on bluffing—or, better yet, on avoiding detection altogether. You want to sneak false information by your teacher.

Ghosts can be:

1. invented people, books, articles

2. invented information in an actual book or article written by a real person

Obviously, inventing whole works, or entire academics, is risky! And usually unnecessarily risky. It's far more common to use an existing work, and claim that it argues something it doesn't. It's much harder to catch, too, because it actually involves your teacher opening a book he or she probably doesn't have on his or her desk. People and books, on the other hand, can simply be checked in Google.

The best way to sneak things by is to remain within the realm of possibility. Don't give your teacher a reason to doubt your claim. Appear real: ghost mis-attribute to works on your topic, for example; or mix proper attribution with mis-attribution within the same work. Also, sometimes giving page ranges, rather than single pages, reads more convincing.

But stay away from books or articles that everyone in your field knows! Standard and popular texts are usually cited for the same few ideas, and anything different sticks out. Instead, take something between well-known and obscure. Play the middle.

In the end, the risks associated with well done ghost mis-attribution come down to how often you use it. Every mis-attribution adds to your chances of being discovered. Plan accordingly.

see also: foreign mis-attribution
see also: peer-reviewed mis-attribution
see also: the foreign source

Foreign Mis-attribution

(for an overview, see: mis-attribution)

Foreign mis-attribution is the attribution of a false or real foreign source to an original idea, with the intention of granting academic legitimacy to that idea.

For example, if you decide to write a paper arguing that the character Ophelia in Shakespeare's King Lear is actually a closet lesbian, you'll probably want to provide evidence. The play you'll have to scour yourself, of course, but original research in the humanities or social sciences is often insufficient to convince your teacher that you're right or bright. Hence, you'll need secondary sources: proof that earlier academics have either already argued what you're arguing, or have argued something similar. In academia, unless you're established, you have to build on those who are.

If such precedents exist, it may be tough to search them out; if they don't exist, doubly tough. In either case, you may wish to take a shortcut: simply invent the precedents.

Dabble in English inventions at your own peril, however! Teachers may be limited in their knowledge, but they do know their own field. To move away from what they know, move the playing field beyond their language and beyond their country.

Here, you have a choice: exactly how much to invent?

1. You could go all the way and invent an entire person. If you do, pick common names that will be a pain to look up on Google.

2. You could pick a real academic (search some university, college or academic journal sites) somewhat in your own area of interest. If you choose this route, make sure they're not terribly well known. As an added twist, you could also pick the last name of a real academic and change the first name.

Regardless, once you get past the person, whether real or imaginary, you'll have to decide on a source. Again, choices:

1. If you're using a real person, you can also choose a real source. Instant credibility. The downside: you're being specific. If your teacher manages to check the source, you're cooked. There are still ways out of the predicament, but you'd rather not get into it in the first place.

2. If you're using a real or imaginary person, you can use an imaginary source. A fake article in a real journal that isn't indexed online is one good choice. As is any title in the original language. That way, it won't be a dead give-away when the title returns no searches in Google. If you want to get extra tricky, find a real title in English, then translate it into another language, and make that the title of your invented foreign source!

In the end, it really does come down to creativity. There are hundreds of variations and tips for the ultimate foreign mis-attribution. But always remember:

Make it appear reasonable and make it Google-proof.

see also: ghost mis-attribution
see also: peer-reviewed mis-attribution
see also: the foreign source


Although not within the realm of pure plagiarism, mis-attribution is nevertheless a valuable tool to have at your disposal.

Broadly defined, mis-attribution is:

The attribution of words or ideas to someone other than their creator.

As you can see, plagiarism is a distinct form of mis-attribution because it's an implicit attribution of someone's work as your own; but it's not the only kind. And other forms of mis-attribution can be powerful allies when added to the forces of plagiarism. These useful types of mis-attribution include:

Foreign Mis-attribution

Ghost Mis-attribution

Peer-reviewed Mis-attribution

The Foreign Source

If you're blessed with knowledge of a foreign language—or, for the more adventorous, even if you're not—one of the best sources to plagiarize is the wealth of non-English scholarship available at your school library: French, German, Spanish, Russian, you name it. If you can read it, it can be plagiarized. And, if you can't read it, you can still put it to good use (see: foreign mis-attribution).

However, there are several factors to consider when choosing non-English sources for plagiarism.

1) You have to decide how obscure you want to go. Normally, the mid-to-obscure route is the safest because it gives you the greatest chance of hitting the sweet spot: that grey area between what your teacher has heard about and what seems so obscure that it's fishy. Seem original without seeming crazy. Although, obviously, it depends on your own particular context.

2) You have to know something about your teacher. If he or she speaks English and German, for instance, don't pick a German source! Also, remember that just because you've found something in a foreign language, doesn't mean it's not available in English, too—either in translation or because what you've found is a translation.

3) Check any footnotes in the source you choose to plagiarize. It could very well be that what you think is a great idea in an unknown Swahili source is actually from a popular English-language treatise that your teacher has on his or her shelf. Find the roots of ideas, and plagiarize only if they're shallow and firmly implanted in foreign soil.