How to Avoid Plagiarism | Tips on Citing Sources

Plagiarism means using someone else’s words or ideas without properly crediting the original author. Sometimes plagiarism involves deliberately stealing someone’s work, but more often it happens accidentally, through carelessness or forgetfulness.

When you write an academic paper, you build upon the work of others and use various credible sources for information and evidence. To avoid plagiarism, you need to correctly incorporate these sources into your text.

You can avoid plagiarism by:

  1. Keeping track of the sources you consult in your research
  2. Paraphrasing or quoting from your sources (and adding your own ideas)
  3. Crediting the original author in an in-text citation and in your reference list
  4. Using a plagiarism checker before you submit

Even accidental plagiarism can have serious consequences, so take care with how you integrate sources into your writing.

Keeping track of your sources

One of the most common ways that students commit plagiarism is by simply forgetting where an idea came from and unintentionally presenting it as their own. You can easily avoid this pitfall by keeping your notes organized and compiling a list of citations as you go.

Clearly label which thoughts are yours and which aren’t in your notes, highlight statements that need citations, and carefully mark any text copied directly from a source with quotation marks.

In the example below, red indicates a claim that requires a source, blue indicates information paraphrased or summarized from a source, and green indicates a direct quotation.

Example: Research notes

Notes for my paper on global warming

  • Global warming is drastically altering our planet every year
    • Greenhouse gas emissions trap heat and raise global temperatures [cite details]
    • Causes more severe weather: hurricanes, fires, water scarcity [cite examples]
  • These changes have big impacts not only on humans but also on other species
    • Animal habitats across the world are under threat from climate change [cite examples]
    • Just this year, 23 species have been declared extinct (BBC News 2021)
  • Global warming has even led to changes in animal behavior and physiology
    • “Animals are changing shape… some are growing bigger wings, some are sprouting longer ears and others are growing larger bills” in order to cool off (Zeldovich 2021)

Managing sources with the Scribbr Citation Generator

To make your life easier later, make sure to write down the full details of every source you consult. That includes not only books and journal articles, but also things like websites, magazine articles, and videos. This makes it easy to go back and check where you found a phrase, fact, or idea that you want to use in your paper.

Scribbr’s Citation Generator allows you to start building and managing your reference list as you go, saving time later. When you’re ready to submit, simply download your reference list!

Generate accurate citations with Scribbr

Avoiding plagiarism when quoting

Quoting means copying a piece of text word for word. The copied text must be introduced in your own words, enclosed in quotation marks, and correctly attributed to the original author.

In general, quote sparingly. Quotes are appropriate when:

  • You’re using an exact definition, introduced by the original author
  • It is impossible for you to rephrase the original text without losing its meaning
  • You’re analyzing the use of language in the original text
  • You want to maintain the authority and style of the author’s words
Original text
“Arts and culture undoubtedly flourished in the ’20s as a shared American pop culture emerged thanks to the advent of radio broadcasting, widely circulated magazines and movies” (Thulin, 2021).
Quoted incorrectly
In the 1920s, arts and culture undoubtedly flourished in the US due to the advent of radio broadcasting, widely circulated magazines and movies.
Quoted correctly
In the 1920s, “arts and culture undoubtedly flourished” in the US due to “the advent of radio broadcasting, widely circulated magazines and movies” (Thulin, 2021).

Long quotations should be formatted as block quotes. But for longer blocks of text, it’s usually better to paraphrase instead.

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Avoiding plagiarism when paraphrasing

Paraphrasing means using your own words to explain something from a source.

Paraphrasing does not mean just switching out a few words from a copy-pasted text. To paraphrase properly, you should rewrite the author’s point in your own words to show that you have fully understood it.

Original text
“Plastics harm wildlife in myriad ways, many of which scientists are just beginning to grasp. When birds, fish and other larger animals eat plastics, the material can get tangled up inside their bodies and cause damage; plastics can also make animals feel falsely full, so they stop eating” (Dzombak, 2021).
Paraphrased incorrectly
Plastics hurt animals in a lot of ways, many of which scientists are just starting to understand. When birds, fish and other bigger animals swallow plastics, the substance can get tangled up inside their stomachs and cause harm; plastics can also make animals feel artificially full, so they cease eating.
Paraphrased well
Scientists are still learning the extent to which plastics harm animals. According to Dzombak (2021), ingesting plastic can lead to internal damage if it gets tangled when swallowed, and can also lead animals to feel falsely full. Both prevent them from getting the nutrients they need.

Citing your sources correctly

Every time you quote or paraphrase, you must include an in-text or footnote citation clearly identifying the original author. Each citation must correspond to a full reference in the reference list or bibliography at the end of your paper.

This acknowledges the source of your information, avoiding plagiarism, and it helps your readers locate the source for themselves if they would like to learn more.

There are many different citation styles, each with its own rules. A few common styles are APA, MLA, and Chicago. Your instructor may assign a particular style for you to use, or you may be able to choose. The most important thing is to apply one style consistently throughout the text.

The examples below follow APA Style.

Citing a single source

In-text citation The novel’s central theme is voiced by Cersei Lannister: “when you play the game of thrones you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” (Martin, 2002, p. 403).
Reference list Martin, G. R. R. (2002). A game of thrones (Reprint ed.). Bantam.

Citing multiple sources

If you quote multiple sources in one sentence, make sure to cite them separately so that it’s clear which material came from which source.

In-text citation Martin’s narrative can be read as a classic “zero-sum game” (Morgenstern and von Neumann, 1980, p.98), where players in the “game of thrones” either “win or … die” (Martin, 2002, p. 403), with no other outcomes possible.
Reference list Martin, G. R. R. (2002). A game of thrones (Reprint ed.). Bantam.
Morgenstern, O., & von Neumann, J. (1980). Theory of games and economic behavior (3rd ed.). Princeton University Press.

To create correctly formatted source citations, you can use our free Citation Generator.

APA Citation Generator MLA Citation Generator

And if you’re citing in APA Style, consider using Scribbr’s Citation Checker, a unique tool that scans your citations for errors. It can detect inconsistencies between your in-text citations and your reference list, as well as making sure your citations are flawlessly formatted.

Using a plagiarism checker

Most universities use plagiarism checkers like Turnitin to detect potential plagiarism. Here’s how plagiarism checkers work: they scan your document, compare it to a database of webpages and publications, and highlight passages that appear similar to other texts.

Consider using a plagiarism checker yourself before submitting your paper. This allows you to identify issues that could constitute accidental plagiarism, such as:

  • Forgotten or misplaced citations
  • Missing quotation marks
  • Paraphrased material that’s too similar to the original text

Then you can easily fix any instances of potential plagiarism.

There are differences in accuracy and safety between plagiarism checkers. To help students choose, we conducted extensive research comparing the best plagiarism checkers.

Checklist: Plagiarism prevention

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Free lecture slides

Are you a teacher or professor who would like to educate your students about plagiarism? You can download our free lecture slides, available for Google Slides and Microsoft PowerPoint.

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Frequently asked questions

Can plagiarism be accidental?

Accidental plagiarism is one of the most common examples of plagiarism. Perhaps you forgot to cite a source, or paraphrased something a bit too closely. Maybe you can’t remember where you got an idea from, and aren’t totally sure if it’s original or not.

These all count as plagiarism, even though you didn’t do it on purpose. When in doubt, make sure you’re citing your sources. Also consider running your work through a plagiarism checker tool prior to submission, which work by using advanced database software to scan for matches between your text and existing texts.

Scribbr’s Plagiarism Checker takes less than 10 minutes and can help you turn in your paper with confidence.

How can I summarize a source without plagiarizing?

To avoid plagiarism when summarizing an article or other source, follow these two rules:

  • Write the summary entirely in your own words by paraphrasing the author’s ideas.
  • Cite the source with an in-text citation and a full reference so your reader can easily find the original text.
How is plagiarism detected?

Plagiarism can be detected by your professor or readers if the tone, formatting, or style of your text is different in different parts of your paper, or if they’re familiar with the plagiarized source.

Many universities also use plagiarism detection software like Turnitin’s, which compares your text to a large database of other sources, flagging any similarities that come up.

It can be easier than you think to commit plagiarism by accident. Consider using a plagiarism checker prior to submitting your paper to ensure you haven’t missed any citations.

What are some examples of plagiarism?

Some examples of plagiarism include:

  • Copying and pasting a Wikipedia article into the body of an assignment
  • Quoting a source without including a citation
  • Not paraphrasing a source properly, such as maintaining wording too close to the original
  • Forgetting to cite the source of an idea

The most surefire way to avoid plagiarism is to always cite your sources. When in doubt, cite!

If you’re concerned about plagiarism, consider running your work through a plagiarism checker tool prior to submission. Scribbr’s Plagiarism Checker takes less than 10 minutes and can help you turn in your paper with confidence.

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Tegan George

Tegan is an American based in Amsterdam, with master's degrees in political science and education administration. While she is definitely a political scientist at heart, her experience working at universities led to a passion for making social science topics more approachable and exciting to students. A well-designed natural experiment is her favorite type of research, but she also loves qualitative methods of all varieties.