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:
- Keep track of the sources you consult in your research.
- Paraphrase or quote from your sources (and add your own ideas).
- Credit the original author in an in-text citation and reference list.
- 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
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 means using your own words to explain something from a source. It allows you to give only the most important information from a passage.
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.
Step 3: Cite the original source
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.
|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.
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:
- Best plagiarism checker comparison (free and paid checks)
- Best free plagiarism checker comparison (only free checks)
Plagiarism prevention checklist
Use this checklist to make sure your writing is free from plagiarism.
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.
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.
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?
- Is paraphrasing considered plagiarism?
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.