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: Keep track of your sources

While you’re doing research and taking notes for your paper, make sure to record the source of each piece of information. One way 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. Keep track of every source you consult—that includes not only books and journal articles, but also things like websites, magazine articles, and videos.

Then you can easily go back and check where you found a phrase, fact, or idea that you want to use in your paper.

Step 2: Quote and paraphrase

While writing your paper, if you want to share an idea or a piece of information from a source, you must either paraphrase or quote the original text.

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:

According to Cronon, the concept of wilderness is a cultural invention: “Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creation—indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history” (1995, p. 69).

Paraphrasing

Paraphrasing means using your own words to explain something from a source. It allows you to give only the most important information from a passage.

Before the 18th century, the word “wilderness” had very different associations than it does today. Far from being tourist attractions, wilderness areas were considered bleak, barren places that inspired fear and confusion—landscapes to be avoided rather than actively sought out (Cronon, 1995, p. 70).
“Go back 250 years in American and European history, and you do not find nearly so many people wandering around remote corners of the planet looking for what today we would call ‘the wilderness experience.’ As late as the eighteenth century, the most common usage of the word ‘wilderness’ in the English language referred to landscapes that generally carried adjectives far different from the ones they attract today. To be a wilderness then was to be ‘deserted,’ ‘savage,’ ‘desolate,’ ‘barren’—in short, a ‘waste,’ the word’s nearest synonym. Its connotations were anything but positive, and the emotion one was most likely to feel in its presence was ‘bewilderment’ or terror” (Cronon, 1995, p. 70).
What today we would call the wilderness experience was not always so popular. As late as the eighteenth century, ‘wilderness’ in English most commonly referred to landscapes that carried far different adjectives than today, such as deserted, desolate, and barren. “Waste” was the word’s nearest synonym. It had negative connotations rather than positive ones, and was associated with emotions like bewilderment and terror (Cronon, 1995, p. 70).

 

In the paraphrased example, the author’s main point has been rephrased and condensed; the order of information and the sentence structure have been changed.

In the plagiarized example, even though the text is not identical, many of the same phrases have been used, and the information is presented in the same order with the same structure. Even with a citation, this passage would very likely be flagged as plagiarism.

To avoid plagiarism when paraphrasing, you need to make sure that your text isn’t too similar to the original.

Paraphrasing vs. quoting

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.

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

Whether you paraphrase or quote, always build on your sources by adding your own ideas, interpretations and arguments.

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Step 3: Cite the original source

Every time you quote or paraphrase, you must include an in-text citation (or footnote citation) that identifies the original author. It often also includes the publication year and a page number.

Each in-text citation must correspond to a full reference in the reference list or bibliography at the end of your paper. This details exactly where the information came from, allowing your readers to locate the source for themselves.

There are many different citation styles, and each one has its own rules for citing. Some of the most common include APA, MLA and Chicago Style. The most important thing is to apply one style consistently throughout the text.

APA citation example
In-text citation Recent research has shown that plagiarism is an increasingly widespread issue (Smith & Thomas, 2018, pp. 34–36).
Reference list entry Smith, T.H., & Thomas, L. (2018). New challenges in higher education. New York, NY: Free Press.

To create correctly formatted source citations, you can use our free citation generator.

APA Citation Generator MLA Citation Generator

Step 4: Use a plagiarism checker

Most universities use plagiarism checkers to detect plagiarism in student papers. This technology scans your document, compares it to a huge database of publications and websites, and highlights passages that are overly similar to other texts.

You can use 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.

There are differences in accuracy and safety between plagiarism checkers. We have tested and compared all the options:

  1. Best plagiarism checker comparison (free and paid checks)
  2. Best free plagiarism checker comparison (only free checks)

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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Frequently asked questions about avoiding plagiarism

What happens if you plagiarize?

The consequences of plagiarism vary depending on the type of plagiarism and the context in which it occurs. For example, submitting a whole paper by someone else will have the most severe consequences, while accidental citation errors are considered less serious.

If you’re a student, then you might fail the course, be suspended or expelled, or be obligated to attend a workshop on plagiarism. It depends on whether it’s your first offense or whether you’ve done it before.

As an academic or professional, plagiarizing seriously damages your reputation. You might also lose your research funding and/or your job, and you could even face legal consequences for copyright infringement.

Are plagiarism checkers accurate?

The accuracy depends on the plagiarism checker you use. Scribbr is the most accurate plagiarism checker. Many free plagiarism checkers fail to detect all plagiarism or falsely flag text as plagiarism.

Take a look at this comparison of free and paid plagiarism checkers for students to find the most accurate plagiarism checker.

The accuracy is determined by two factors: the algorithm (which recognizes the plagiarism) and the size of the database (with which your document is compared).

Size of the database

Many free plagiarism checkers only check your paper against websites – not against books, journals or papers previously submitted by other students. Therefore, these plagiarism checkers are not very accurate, as they miss a lot of plagiarism.

Algorithm

Most plagiarism checkers are only able to detect “direct plagiarism”, or instances where the sentences are exactly the same as in the original source. However, a good plagiarism checker is also able to detect “patchwork plagiarism” (sentences where some words are changed or synonyms are used).

Is it plagiarism if you cite the source?

If you’ve properly paraphrased or quoted and correctly cited the source, you are not committing plagiarism.

However, the word correctly is vital. In order to avoid plagiarism, you must adhere to the guidelines of your citation style (e.g. APA or MLA).

You can use the Scribbr Plagiarism Checker to make sure you haven’t missed any citations, while our Citation Checker ensures you’ve properly formatted your citations in APA style.

Is paraphrasing considered plagiarism?

Paraphrasing without crediting the original author is a form of plagiarism, because you’re presenting someone else’s ideas as if they were your own.

However, paraphrasing is not plagiarism if you correctly cite the source. This means including an in-text citation and a full reference, formatted according to your required citation style.

As well as citing, make sure that any paraphrased text is completely rewritten in your own words.

Can you plagiarize your own work?

Although it sounds contradictory, you can indeed plagiarize your own work. This is called self-plagiarism. Self-plagiarism goes against the expectations of the reader that the paper you submitted is new and original.

You can plagiarize yourself by, for instance:

  • Submitting a document you previously submitted for a different course
  • Using ideas or data from a previous paper without correctly citing yourself as the source

Although self-plagiarism is often unintentional, it can have serious consequences. Be sure to cite your previous work or discuss the decision to use your old paper with your professor.

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Raimo Streefkerk

Raimo is an expert in explaining plagiarism and citing sources. He has been writing helpful articles since 2017 and is continuously improving Scribbr's Citation Generators.