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How to Avoid Plagiarism

Refresher: What is plagiarism?

In school, we’re all taught that plagiarism is bad. We’re told it’s unethical, against the rules, and that there are consequences.

Plagiarism is using someone else’s work and trying to pass it off as your own. It is a form of stealing someone’s creative/intellectual work.

There are many different types of plagiarism:

  • Complete plagiarism: Copying someone else’s entire work and just putting your name on it.
  • Direct plagiarism: Copy-pasting parts (but not all) of someone else’s work.
  • Paraphrased plagiarism: Taking others’ ideas and just changing the way they’re written.
  • Patchwork plagiarism: Copy-pasting some parts, paraphrasing others.
  • Self-plagiarism: Using something you had previously written and submitted, trying to get credit twice for the same work.
  • Accidental plagiarism: Unintentionally missing a source, misquoting, or citing incorrectly.

Regardless of which type of plagiarism you commit, whether it was done on purpose or it was a mistake, it is still plagiarism. It is still unethical. It still has consequences.

The negative effects of intentional plagiarism

In addition to possibly getting a failing grade or losing financial aid, plagiarism has other negative effects.

Like other kinds of cheating, plagiarism is a shortcut, a way to get the grade without doing the work (but that’s only if you don’t get caught). The problem with that is, you might get the grade, but you’ve forfeited the learning.

Doing research is hard. Academic writing is hard. But so are most things worth doing. Research and writing take practice – you cannot learn to research and write just by listening to your teacher or reading about it.

It’s like playing basketball. You can listen to coaches, watch videos of your favorite players, and read every book ever written about basketball. None of those things will make you a better player if you don’t also practice. In order to get better, you have to do the work.

If you plagiarize your paper, you will never learn to research and write effectively. “So what,” you might say. “I plan on being an engineer/CEO /artist/any-other-career-that-doesn’t-do-a-lot-of-writing anyway.”

That may be. However, learning to write an academic paper is not just about research and writing.

It’s also about:

  • finding out what interests you
  • knowing how to look for information you need
  • understanding what knowledge already exists about a topic
  • evaluating sources
  • analyzing arguments and developing counterarguments
  • forming a coherent argument and supporting it with research
  • thinking clearly and being able to articulate your thoughts

An engineer will need to evaluate building materials and suppliers, for example. A CEO should know how to analyze arguments coming from other departments and develop counterarguments for why their own plan makes the most sense. An artist should understand what other artists have done before. And who wouldn’t benefit from thinking clearly and articulating their thoughts?

Research and writing are also about learning to learn and learning to think.

How to avoid plagiarism

Now you have an understanding of why plagiarizing is bad for your own learning and growth as a person. However, it’s not always clear what you should do to avoid it. Fortunately, plagiarism is completely avoidable. Following these simple steps will help keep your paper free of plagiarism.

1. Choose a topic you want to learn more about

You’re in English Lit class and your teacher makes the announcement that causes every student to groan: There will be a research paper. Choose an author and write a paper about [fill in the blank].

This is English Lit. There must be one author in the entire canon of English Literature that you’d be interested in learning something about.

All it takes is a little curiosity and some ambitious googling to find a topic you’re interested in. This applies to any research paper you are required to write for any class in your entire career as a student. If you’re really stumped, talk to your teacher. Maybe they can get you started in the right direction.

Why is choosing a topic you’re interested in the first step in avoiding plagiarism?

Because if you are already interested in learning about something, you are more likely to dig into the research.

If you are interested in Sylvia Plath’s intense, gory imagery in her poems, explore that! What was that all about? What motivated her? Did other poets do that, too?

Writing a research paper is already hard enough. At least make it interesting for yourself.

2. Slow and steady wins the race: Don’t procrastinate

When did your English Lit teacher announce the research paper? In the second week of the term. Why? Because they know that this paper will take a long time to complete.

Do yourself a favor and start working on it right away, little by little.

Just like you can’t cram to learn basketball, rushing to write a term paper in three days is going to produce enormous amounts of stress and sleep deprivation. And that is when plagiarizing is most likely to happen: When you have a deadline looming and you just want to turn something in because you need to sleep.

Try to get a little done every day.

3. Be meticulous about your research notes

However you keep track of your research – on paper or on a computer– make sure you have a system for taking research notes. The organization of your research notes will keep you from committing accidental plagiarism.

What, exactly, are research notes?

They are a way to organize your research: to remember what you’ve read, to keep track of any quotes you want to include, to paraphrase or summarize important information.

You will need to include a list of sources at the end of your paper. You can use your research notes for that.

If you want to include any quotes, go ahead and write them in your notes, and put the source next to them. Just make sure you show they are direct quotes so that when you write them in your paper, you write them exactly the same.

You might indicate a direct quote with quotation marks, so you can just copy and paste directly into your document (don’t forget to cite!). Or maybe you use bold, or blue font, or you highlight. Whatever makes sense to you, do that and be consistent.

If you want to paraphrase or summarize, you can already practice in your research notes, and put the source next to it.  Again, make sure you know it’s a paraphrase or a summary, so you remember to cite the source when you write your paper.

4. Keep quotes as they are

When including direct quotes in your project, make sure to keep them as they appear in the source. Do not change any of the words. It’s okay to remove some words, but show the reader that words were removed by including an ellipsis (…) in their place.

Make sure to add quotation marks around the quote and include an in-text citation immediately following it. Don’t forget to add the full citation at the end of the project.

Although it is appropriate to use direct quotes in your paper (as long as they’re cited correctly) don’t rely too much on quotations. This is especially true for block quotes, which are longer blocks of text.

Remember that academic writing is about your ideas, your thinking, your learning. Of course you will use external sources to support your ideas, but the sources are the support. The main part of the writing should be your ideas.

If you have too many quotes, your ideas get buried, and the reader might start to wonder if you have anything original to say, or if you’re just repeating what someone else already said.

5. Paraphrase

If you find information you’d like to include in your project, consider paraphrasing. Paraphrasing is the act of restating information in your own words. It often involves explaining, clarifying, or adding to the information.

Paraphrasing is appropriate in academic writing, and it is preferable to direct quotes. Why? Because you are already doing some of the work of interpreting the original source, processing the information, and finding a new way to state the ideas. Plus, since you are writing it, you retain your “voice.” If you use too many quotes, then your paper presents mostly other people’s voices, and yours gets lost.

To paraphrase, you want to keep the same idea while changing the way it is said as much as possible.  If you don’t make many changes, a plagiarism checker might flag your paraphrase.

You can change the way something is said by:

  • using synonyms
  • changing the order of the words
  • making a statement into a question
  • changing the arrangement of clauses
  • changing positive to negative (or vice versa)
  • changing active voice to passive voice (or vice versa)
  • changing word forms

Paraphrasing well is a challenging skill, and like any skill, you will get better with practice.

6. Add citations in your project any time you use information from another source

Citing your sources is the main way to avoid plagiarism. In fact, citing is what separates a correctly written paper from an academically dishonest one. It’s that important.

Citing sources means indicating when something written wasn’t your idea. Cite both direct quotes and paraphrases.

To correctly cite your sources, you will cite your sources in the text, using in-text citations. You will include more complete citations at the end of the paper, in a Works Cited page, reference list, or bibliography (more on that later). How you cite will depend on the style guide your teacher wants you to follow.

Here’s an example in MLA formatting:

Margret and Hans were desperate to leave Paris and on “that first day, the Reys pedaled forty-eight kilometers to the town of Etampes” (Borden 50).

The main styles are:

  • MLA – The Modern Language Association, usually used for the humanities
  • APA – the American Psychological Association, usually used for the social sciences
  • CMS – The Chicago Manual of Style, usually used for history, business, and the fine arts

There are other citation styles, so it’s very important that you know which one your teacher wants you to use.

Here’s a tip: Find a good reference online for whichever style you need to use, and bookmark it. Whenever you cite, open the webpage and check that you’re doing it correctly.

7. List your sources at the end

If you have any in-text citations in your assignment, then you also need to add full citations at the end of your project. In-text citations provide readers with a quick glimpse of where the information came from.

You don’t include more information about the source in the middle of your projects because that would be too much of a distraction. You want readers to focus on your research, not necessarily your sources. The full citations, found at the end of projects, provide readers with more information about each source.

Citation pages can look different depending on the citation style your teacher wants you to use. In fact, they will have different names depending on which style you use.

  • In MLA, it’s titled Works Cited
  • In APA, it’s titled References
  • In CMS, it’s titled Bibliography

Again, use that bookmarked page when you start drafting your list of sources.

8. Use your own words, in your own writing style

Sure, you might have a few direct quotes in your research project, but including too many gives the impression that you simply compiled a bunch of quotes. You need to show that you understand your research topic and the sources you used, by analyzing them in your writing.

Paraphrasing is better than quoting because you are already starting to process the information and present it in your own words.

However, it is important to remember: Academic writing should be about what you think, what you learned, and how you interpret your topic, based on your research.

Not only should your writing be in your own words, it should also be built from your own ideas.

This means you analyze the information you research and endlessly ask yourself, “So what? What does this mean?” That “so what” will be your contribution. All the research that came before is what someone else already researched, analyzed, and bothered to write up and publish. That will be your starting point. You go on from there.

That might sound a little scary, like having to walk through a dark forest. But you are learning to learn, and you are learning to think.

9. Check your work

Once you’ve finished writing up your draft, celebrate! You’ve earned it! Put your draft away and don’t look at it for a while. At least a few hours, a few days if possible. You want to check it with fresh eyes, so give your brain a rest.

When you come back to it, do your best to check it the way your teacher would. Be detached. Get some emotional distance.

Look for a few things:

  • Is your topic and argument clear?
  • If you included quotes, do they have quotation marks and an in-text citation?
  • Do your paraphrases have in-text citations?
  • Do you include your own analysis? Is the majority of your paper your analysis?
  • Does your voice come through?
  • Do you have a list of sources at the end?
  • Are you using the correct style guide, and are you using it correctly? (Go ahead and check that bookmarked page one more time.)

If you answered “yes” to all of those questions, pat yourself on the back. You did your best, and you should be proud. It won’t guarantee an A, but it will guarantee that you have taken a big step in learning to learn and learning to think.


10. Use a plagiarism checker

It’s possible your teacher mentioned running your paper through a plagiarism checker. It’s a good idea to see a report on whether anything gets flagged as possible plagiarism before you submit your assignment.

If you’re looking to try this, consider trying the essay checker.

Key takeaways

  • Give yourself time to write your paper properly and to double-check your work
  • You should always avoid plagiarizing by making sure you cite your sources.
  • Although you use research in your academic writing, the purpose of the paper is to demonstrate your ideas and your analysis of your topic.
  • Go easy on the paraphrasing and even easier on direct quotations. Make sure it’s your voice that comes through.

Need citations? Citation Machine can help you create a works cited in MLA format, an APA citation, or a bibliography in several other citation styles.

Published January 5, 2018. Revised October 29, 2020.

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