How to Avoid Plagiarism

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Understanding plagiarism and how to avoid are crucial to being an ethical and productive student, professional, and member of society. Before you learn to avoid it, you must first know what it is.

Guide Overview

What is plagiarism

Plagiarism is the presentation of someone else’s creative/intellectual as your own, whether that be writing, speech, image, illustration, video, graph, etc. (although this guide will focus on writing).

Plagiarism can be both accidental and on-purpose. Most think of plagiarism being an unethical, conscious decision — when someone purposely steals another’s work and lies about it creating that work. However, plagiarism can also be the result of poorly-used quotes and paraphrases, or taking information without giving proper credit to the author. Even if it wasn’t on purpose, accidental plagiarism is still plagiarism and can have consequences.

In school, plagiarism could lead to disciplinary action, such as a failing grade, suspension, or expulsion. In university, confirmed plagiarism might be noted in your permanent record, which could affect scholarships or financial aid.

In a professional setting, plagiarism is illegal because it is protected by author’s rights and/or copyright. A professional that plagiarizes could face legal charges for infringing on copyright. Copyright is the original author’s legal right to the work they created. Authors control who else can use their intellectual property. Aside from copyright, there are other reasons to avoid plagiarism.

Why you should avoid it

Plagiarism is unethical at best, illegal at worst. That is bad enough. However, plagiarism also robs you of real learning. It keeps you from contributing to the construction of knowledge.

If that doesn’t convince you to avoid plagiarism, also consider this: technology is advancing at an incredible pace. Climate science, medicine, neuroscience, robotics, alternative energy… All of these disciplines have made tremendous strides in the last decades and will continue to advance and grow.

Who do you think advances and grows this knowledge?

It could be you. It could be anybody. Researchers, scientists, writers, and academics aren’t grown in Petri dishes or printed on a 3D printer. They are people who were students at one point, discovered a passion, learned everything they could about it, and then just kept going, making discoveries and breakthroughs, and contributing to the construction of knowledge.

Build new knowledge

Building new knowledge cannot happen without knowing and understanding existing knowledge. Think about building knowledge like building a house. You can’t get to the roof (new knowledge) until you’ve laid the foundation and put up the walls (existing knowledge), right?

When you do your research about your topic, you are seeing how others laid the foundation, how they built the walls. Then, the roof is all you: the roof is your contribution, but it lies on top walls, on top of a foundation. The sources you cite in your paper are the beams that support the roof. They hold it up, but they are not the roof. They only help keep the roof in place.

The idea of constructing knowledge has never been more relevant than now.

You may be saying, “I just want to write my sociology research paper on the rise of social activism.” What does that have to do with a researcher studying solar energy and building new knowledge in a growing field?

It’s about the skills you need to reach your goal.

In order to learn something, you need to invest yourself in the process of learning, whether you’re a freshman just trying to make it through Intro to Sociology, or an internationally-known researcher who presents at solar technology conferences is Stockholm.

Plagiarism is taking the easy way out: It can lead to little-to-no learning, as well as failing grades or expulsion when you’re discovered. Because the likelihood is that you will be discovered.

To summarize, you want to avoid plagiarizing because:

  • you won’t learn much
  • you will probably get caught
  • you will fail the assignment or the class. Or worse.

How to avoid plagiarism

Now that you know what plagiarism is and why it’s bad, take a deep breath, because avoiding it is not that hard.

To use another person’s words or ideas in your writing, you will need to cite your original source. In some instances, you may even need to get permission from the original publisher before using someone else’s work. Also, if you have a strong research and writing process, you’ll reduce the likelihood of committing accidental plagiarism.

Here are some tips for how to avoid plagiarism:

1. Pick a topic you’re interested in

If you’re in school, you will have to do academic writing. It’s unavoidable. So if you’re going to have to write research papers anyway, pick a topic you’re interested in.

Even in classes you have to take (as opposed to those you chose to take), there must be something interesting you’d like to learn more about. A research paper takes time and dedication to complete, so it’s in your best interest to choose a topic that’s compelling to you.

If it’s something you want to learn about, you’re more likely to do the necessary research and focus on writing your paper. The topic you pick might be general and vague in the beginning. That’s okay.

2. Leave yourself plenty of time to complete your research and writing.

There is a reason you are given this assignment early on in the term. Research takes time. Writing takes time. Revising and proofreading take time. And, as you well know, this will not be your only assignment. You have other classes and other commitments. Time management is your friend.

Once you have a topic in mind, begin your general research. (*Here’s a secret: Many research papers started with Wikipedia – NOT because you use it as a source, but because it’s useful for background knowledge and it has tons of citations included. Use some of the sources listed at the end to continue your research!)

It’s possible you won’t have an angle for your research yet. That’s okay. As you begin to get some background knowledge, you will find yourself gravitating towards some ideas. Follow your curiosity, especially in the beginning.

However, keep in mind that you want to balance your sources. If you start reading a lot of research about the benefits of your topic, try reading a few about the drawbacks, to balance your research. Also, make sure you’re not reading only one or two authors. What do other people say? Especially people who disagree with your viewpoint.

3. Keep good research notes!

This cannot be overstated: your research notes can be the difference between a well-cited paper and accidental plagiarism, which you want to avoid.

If you’re making notes on a laptop, copy and paste the URL of where you found the information under the corresponding note.

It’s also a good idea to have some convention so you know whether something is a direct quote, or your own ideas, notes, interpretations of what you read. For direct quotes, you can use quotation marks (which you can then just transfer to your paper), or make the font a different color, or bold, or something. Whatever you choose, be consistent. That way you know if you see a section in red font, that’s always a direct quote.

If you get ideas and information from other sources, such as a TED Talk video, a PowerPoint online, or an editorial cartoon in the New York Times, you need to keep a record of those as well. They will also need to be cited in-text and places on your list of sources at the end.

4. Start citing sources from the start

Begin building your list of references from the start of researching your paper and taking notes. If you use a resource like EasyBib citing tools, it shouldn’t be too hard.

Even if you don’t end up using all of resources you record, it’s easier to delete sources from a list, than to hunt down missing sources later.

This will make it MUCH easier later when you have to complete your reference list or bibliography. Different styles call it different things:

  • In MLA (the Modern Language Association), it’s called Works Cited.
  • In APA (American Psychological Association), it’s called References.
  • In CMS (Chicago Manual of Style), it’s called Bibliography.

Depending on what class your paper is for and what your teacher requires, you will use one of these styles for citations and your list of sources. Each style presents source information a little differently so make sure you know which style guide you need to use and refer to it often to make sure you cite correctly. Ask your teacher if you’re unsure which style to use.

5. Use quotations properly

Remember those excellent research notes of yours? Here’s where you use them. If there is a sentence, or a section, that you want to use to support your argument, you can use a direct quote.

As a general rule, keep direct quotations to a minimum. Remember that a research paper is about your ideas, not just repeating others’.

Make sure that all direct quotes have quotation marks around them. If you take any words out, indicate that with an ellipsis (…). Add the citation to the end of the quote.

Note: Depending on what citation style you are required to use, how you cite, both in-text and at the end of your paper, might be different. Make sure you know which you need to use and how to use it.

6. Paraphrase

Using a paraphrase, which is conveying the source writer’s idea using your own words, is also common practice in academic writing, and it’s acceptable when done properly.

So how do you do it properly?

Make sure you are conveying the writer’s original idea. Avoid making changes that will alter the meaning. When you paraphrase, you can change words using synonyms, you can change the order of the words in the sentence, you can change grammatical structures like verb tense, active and passive verbs, word forms, etc. The more you change it from the original, without changing its meaning, the better.

There are three reasons why you want to make sure your version isn’t too similar to the original:

  • First, you don’t want your paraphrase to be tagged as plagiarism.
  • Second, re-writing something in your own words helps you process and understand the information better.
  • Third, you inject your own “voice” into your paper. This is what makes your paper “sound” like it was written by you.

Paraphrasing is more common in academic writing than using direct quotations, but again, remember that a research paper should be about your ideas. Other sources serve to bolster your argument. They are not the argument.

Note: Paraphrasing also needs attribution to the original writer. Make sure you cite correctly using the required style.

7. In-text citations

Any time you use ideas or information from another source, cite it in the text. Citations tell your reader exactly where your information came from.

Remember that citing your sources is the way to avoid plagiarism. It literally makes the difference between ethical and unethical writing.

Make sure you know which style you need to use, and refer back to the instructions regularly to make sure you’re citing correctly.

Tip: Bookmark an information page for the citation style you need to use and every time you cite, refer to it to make sure you’re citing correctly. Also, when you put together your list of sources, refer back to that bookmarked page.

8. Include your own ideas

If there is one idea, above all others, that you should engrave in your brain, it’s this: make sure your research paper includes your own ideas. In fact, your ideas should be the bulk of the paper.

The research you do is to give you an idea of what is already known about your topic. It helps guide your thinking. The research can help narrow the focus of your topic, but research is meant to be the starting point for your own ideas.

Let’s go back to the analogy of knowledge as a house. Your research paper is the roof on top. Note that you are not responsible for building the whole house. Other people have already come in before you and done a lot of the work. They laid the foundation and built the walls. Your research is checking what they’ve already done: this is what is already known about your topic. Then, you get to build your roof: this is what you are contributing.

Any sources that you cite in your paper will be beams that support the roof. If all you do is put up a bunch of beams (only quote and/or paraphrase), do you actually have a roof? No, not at all. In fact, if all you have beams, that is also plagiarizing!

However, if you put up a roof without beams, what would happen? Your roof would be wobbly and likely collapse because it has no support.

In order to build a strong roof, you need to know the foundation and walls are there. Then, you need some beams to help hold your roof up.

But you still need to build the roof yourself.

9. Check your work

After you finish writing a draft of your research paper, set it aside for a while – anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Then, come back and re-read it, checking it objectively:

  • Is your topic clearly understood?
  • Do your direct quotes have quotation marks and correct citations?
  • Are your paraphrases also cited correctly?
  • Are you using outside sources only to support your own ideas?
  • Is the majority of your paper your ideas (and not repeating others’ ideas?)
  • Do you have a list of sources at the end?
  • Are you following the correct style guide and are you using it correctly?

Checking your own work isn’t always easy. You wrote it – of course you think it’s amazing! But getting in the habit of checking your own work, and trying to be objective, is excellent practice.

It’s also a good idea to ask someone else to read your paper and give you their opinion. Another convenient options: An online checker like the EasyBib paper checker. It’s available anytime, 24/7.

10. Use a plagiarism checker

Running your work through a plagiarism checker is a good way to make sure that you’ve cited all of your sources. This is also a good habit to get into because it gets you familiar with plagiarism checkers, it helps you learn how to interpret the results, and it helps you avoid plagiarizing.

The EasyBib plagiarism checker is useful and available with an EasyBib Plus subscription.

Key takeaways

  • You want to avoid all forms of plagiarism because it is an unethical practice.
  • Citing your sources correctly is one way to avoid plagiarism.
  • Making sure you use outside sources only as support for your own ideas is the other way to avoid plagiarism.

Published October 28, 2020.

By Halina Stolar. Halina has a master’s degree in teaching and taught English as a Second Language and writing for almost 15 years overseas. She now works as a freelance writer, and geeks out over grammar for fun.

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