How to avoid plagiarism

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

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

Follow these four steps to ensure your paper is free from plagiarism:

  1. Keep track of the sources you consult in your research.
  2. Paraphrase or quote from your sources (and add your own ideas).
  3. Credit the original author in an in-text citation and reference list.
  4. Use a plagiarism checker before you submit.

Plagiarism can have serious consequences, so make sure to follow these steps for every paper you write.

Step 1: Before writing, organize your sources

Avoiding plagiarism is easier if you carefully keep track of your sources from the very beginning of your research.

Get organized

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.

Be sure to give yourself enough time to complete your assignment, with sufficient attention to finding credible sources.

Let’s say you’re writing a paper about global warming. In your notes, you start sketching out the main points you want to make and the evidence you’ll use. You could use different colored highlights to mark claims that require sources, information taken from a specific source, and direct quotes from sources.

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

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)

Keep track of your sources

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!

Make sure your sources are credible

It’s important to make sure your sources are credible. A credible source is free from bias and backed up with evidence. It is written by a trustworthy author or organization, and avoids vague terms, buzzwords, or writing that is too emotive or subjective.

Academic journals and books released from academic publishers are often a good place to start. Google Scholar is also a useful resource for research. Exercise the most caution with web sources, which are the most difficult to evaluate for credibility.

Step 2: Quote and paraphrase correctly

If you want to share an idea or a piece of information from a source, you must either paraphrase or quote the original text, and always cite the source. Make sure your argument shines through by adding your own ideas, interpretations, and conclusions.

In general, paraphrasing is better than quoting, especially for longer passages. It shows that you have fully understood the meaning of the original text, and ensures that your own voice is dominant in your paper.

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 are using an exact definition, introduced by the original author
  • It is impossible for you to rephrase the original text without losing its meaning
  • 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 U.S. due to the advent of radio broadcasting, widely circulated magazines and movies.
Quoted correctly
In the 1920s, “arts and culture undoubtedly flourished” in the U.S. 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.

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 copied-and-pasted text. To paraphrase properly, you should rewrite the author’s point 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.

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Step 3: Cite 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 helps your readers locate the source for themselves if they would like to learn more.

There are many different citation styles, and each one has its own rules. A few of the most common styles are APA, MLA, and Chicago styles. Your instructor may assign a particular style for you to use, or perhaps you can choose. However, 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 (A song of ice and fire, Book 1) (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 (A song of ice and fire, Book 1) (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

Step 4: Check your work

Before submitting your paper, check it carefully for errors that might constitute accidental plagiarism. Common mistakes include:

  • Forgotten or misplaced citations
  • Missing quotation marks
  • Paraphrased material that’s too similar to the original text
  • Sources missing from the reference list

Run it through a plagiarism checker

Most universities use plagiarism checkers to detect potential plagiarism. This technology scans your document, compares it to a database of web pages and publications, and highlights passages that it determines are similar to other texts.

Consider using a plagiarism checker yourself before submitting your paper. This allows you to identify any parts where you’ve forgotten a citation, left out quotation marks, or included a paraphrase that’s too close to the original text. Then you can follow the steps above to easily fix any instances of potential plagiarism.

Double check your citations

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.

Plagiarism prevention checklist

Use this checklist to make sure your writing is free from plagiarism.

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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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.