How to Avoid Plagiarism

Plagiarizing, or representing someone else's ideas or words as your own, will cause problems for people in any stage of life. Students get flunked for it and it even cost Joe Biden a shot at becoming the US President in 1988.[1] Here is how you can make sure you don't plagiarize on purpose or by accident.


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    Understand what plagiarism is. The American Heritage dictionary defines plagiarism as: "the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one's own original work."[2] Thus plagiarism not only includes the word-for-word copying of another piece of work, but close imitation of it also. Using synonyms and other word choices is not an excuse to justify plagiarism. You should write a piece of text strictly in your own words and then cite your sources. You can help yourself write a good paraphrase that is not too close to the original by thinking of the paraphrase more as your interpretation or reflection on what you read, rather than a re-wording of what you read.
    • Original source: "The law of the land prohibited slaves from seeking remuneration from their masters for even the most heinous crimes."
      • Plagiarizing: "The law of the land forbade slaves from seeking damages from their masters for even the most vile crimes."
      • Not plagiarizing: "Even injured, tortured, or taunted slaves could not press for remuneration from their masters according to United States law at the time. (Jefferson, 157)"
    • Plagiarism also applies to:[3]
      • Downloading a paper from the internet.
      • Hiring someone to write something for you.
      • Attempting to make the ideas of others appear like they are your own.
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    Be familiar in the area that you are talking about. By understanding the subject, you are more likely to write in your own words, rather than restate someone else's definition of this subject. Look for information on the topic you want to write about. This can be on the Internet or in books, although books are almost always more authoritative than the Internet.
    • The trick here is to grab several different sources of information. If you're relying on just one source — a book about slavery — the chances are higher you'll inadvertently copy or plagiarize. If you rely on three books about slavery, one documentary, and two original sources, the chances are much lower that you'll inadvertently plagiarize.
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    Restate the subject to yourself a couple of times. The key is to understand the material and be able to express its meaning in your own words. Try to avoid reading from another author's material too much, as you will be more inclined to restate that author's exact statement.
    • Original source: "Slaves worked grueling 12-hour days, from sun-up to sun-down, surviving on little more than 1,200 calories of starches and their own blood, sweat, and tears."
      • Reworked: "Surviving on about half of what we today consider the suggested caloric intake, slaves in the 19th century worked bitter, back-breaking hours. (Jefferson, 88)"
      • Reworked: "In the 19th century, slaves worked for as long as there was light, receiving little in the way of nutrition. (Jefferson, 88)"
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    Reference your quotes and sources. You must include a bibliography or works cited in your paper. If you use a direct quote from another author's work, then you must quote it and cite it properly. Many teachers accept the standard MLA format, unless otherwise specified.
    • You can avoid inadvertent plagiarism by inserting quotation marks (if an actual quote is used) and citing your source immediately when you make a quote or a paraphrase from that source. If you wait to do so, or if you leave inserting quotation marks and citations as the last step in writing your paper, you might forget a quotation or a citation and get in trouble for plagiarism.
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    When in doubt, give credit. There are a lot of ways to do this in order to avoid plagiarism. Here are a few:
    • Mention the source inside your paraphrase: "According to Richard Feynman, quantum electrodynamics can be described using path integral formulations."
    • Put quotation marks around unique phrases you think could be interpreted as being copied: "A 'paradigm shift' happens when one scientific revolution forces the community to think of the world in a fundamentally different way."
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    Understand some basics about copyright. Plagiarism can be more than a bad academic practice, it can be a violation of the law if you break copyright. Here is what you need to understand to stay legal:
    • As a general rule, facts cannot be copyrighted. This means that you are able to use any facts you find to support your writing.[4]
    • Although facts are not subject to copyright, the words used to express them are, particularly if the wording is original or unique (copyright covers original expression). You are free to use information from other materials in your articles, but you must use your own words to express it. To avoid this, you can take the existing facts and put them into your own words. There is a grace on how different the phrase can be; adding a comma is not enough. However, changing the grammar around is.[5]
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    Understand what doesn't need to be cited. Not every single thing in academic research needs to be cited, or else research would be too painful for people to undertake. The following things don't need to be cited in your research and final papers:
    • Common sense observations, folklore, urban legends, and well known historical events, such as the date of the Pearl Harbor Attacks.
    • Your own experiences, insights, creations, and musings.
      • However, if you used these same experiences, insights, creations, or musings in a previous assignment that you submitted academically, or got published, you would need to first obtain your instructor's permission to re-use the material and, if you receive permission, include a self-citation.
    • Your own videos, presentations, music, and other media created and originated by you.
      • However, if you used these same videos, presentations, music, or other media created and originated by you in a previous assignment that you submitted academically, or got published, you would need to first obtain your instructor's permission to re-use the material and, if you receive permission, include a self-citation.
    • The scientific evidence you gathered after performing your own tests, polls, etc.


  • If you're worried something that you have might sound like someone else's, it's probably because it does.
  • If you must copy, do not copy whole pages or paragraphs! Instead, put most of it into your own words, and quote the copied part. Then, cite your source using the proper Bibliography format. Use to cite your sources in the proper format.
  • Cite your sources immediately when you use them, instead of later. Otherwise you might forget to cite one (or some) and that would be plagiarism.
  • Even if you do use something that is purely your own idea, it is strongly recommended that you at least state that you came up with it. Otherwise, your teacher might mistake it for un-cited source material and falsely accuse you of plagiarism.
  • Here's one suggestion for getting things into your own words. Use Google's language tools to take an article and translate it into another language: for example, English to German. Then copy and paste Google's translation back into Google's language tools and translate that into another language: in our example, German to Portuguese. Then translate that back into English. You will end up with extremely broken English that is barely understandable. Using the knowledge of the subject that you've gained from reading the articles and researching, now you can fix the broken English and will have an article that has your own influence placed on it.
  • If you are honestly writing a paper or essay, the chances of you plagiarizing another person's content are very slim. If you are conscious of the fact that you are copying someone else's work, then chances are that you will be caught.
  • Some schools offer programs/services that scan papers for plagiarized content. If you are highly concerned, then you might want to consider such services.


  • Having someone edit your paper for you by adding/replacing a few words or phrases still counts as someone writing part of your paper for you, and is therefore considered plagiarism.
  • Don't take the risk of attempting to plagiarize. Not only will it cost you your grade, but also your respect and reputation with most teachers and colleagues. Many colleges and universities will expel students who deliberately plagiarize.
  • Submitting the same (or very similar) paper for two or more different classes is called self-plagiarism. You may be able to reuse brief portions or ideas from a paper you previously submitted, but only if you first get your instructor's permission and include a self-citation. (You still can't paraphrase anything you previously said in your own first submission too closely either)
  • Lecture notes you take in class, and source material you put into a different format does not count as your own work that you may leave un-cited if used in an assignment. Although you took the notes or wrote the assignment in your own form, you still used other peoples' work, so you'd need to cite your teacher and/or author of the original source. (For example, if you create a pie chart out of statistics you found online, you'd still need to cite the internet source and the statistics you generated the pie chart from, even if the pie chart itself is your own)

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Categories: Citing Writing Sources