No student wants to hear the dreaded word “plagiarism” since this violation of academic honesty can result in failing a paper, removal from a course, or even expulsion from school. Despite the seemingly bottomless resources colleges and universities plunge into teaching academic honesty, plagiarism remains an all too frequent occurrences across the academic spectrum. Even professors like famed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin have been caught plagiarizing in their published work. The Psychological Record found the 36% of college students admit to plagiarizing, while a separate study found 58% of high school students admitted the same. While some never get caught, you don’t want to be among those that do because of the severity of the consequences.
When we think of plagiarism, most of us think of the intentional copying of someone else’s work to use as our own. This, however, is only one type of plagiarism. Another, more common, form of plagiarism occurs accidentally for a number of innocent reasons. This is the harder form of plagiarism to prevent or to correct. Fortunately, our guide to avoiding plagiarism in academic writing will help to make sure you never get caught plagiarizing writing that doesn’t belong to you.
So, what do you need to do to stay on the right side of academic honesty? Let’s take a look.
- Know the difference between quotations, paraphrases, and summaries. There are three ways to make use of information and ideas you found in someone else’s work. The first is to quote it directly. This means using the exact words of the sources and placing these in quotation marks, followed by a citation. This is the most straightforward way to use other people’s words. The other two ways are a little more complicated because they involve restating the original material in your own words. A paraphrase does this in the same depth and detail as the original, while a summary briefly highlights the most important point. Both forms, however, require you to completely rewrite the original, with different words and even different sentence structure. Both also require citations. Repeating the same ideas in a way that is too close to the original is plagiarism, even if you used different words. There is software out there that plagiarizes articles by substituting a synonym for every word in the original, but this is still plagiarism because it leaves the sentence structure and the order of presentation intact.
- Know when and where to cite sources. Even when you aren’t using the exact words of a source, you can still plagiarize if you don’t give credit for ideas and points of view that you’ve borrowed from your sources. While you don’t need to cite every word or phrase in your paper, you should be sure that you are citing any information that is not common knowledge or that is unique to the sources you’ve read. That means that if a reader is likely to recognize that you didn’t pluck an idea out of your own head, you should tell the reader where they can learn more about the idea by providing an in-text citation and a reference list entry to the original source.
- Avoid looking at other people’s writing while composing your paper. This might seem like a strange thing to say. After all, aren’t templates, models, and sample papers an important way that students learn how to write their own essays? They certainly are. However, if you have someone else’s work in front of you while you are writing your own, it becomes easy to accidentally pick up phrases, clauses, or even whole sentences from someone else and write them (or something very close to them) down as your own work. This is especially common among students who write their papers later in the evening, when they are more likely to be tired and it becomes much easier to confuse something you just read for your own brainstorm. Instead, take notes in your own words and then use those notes to help you write the paper so you don’t accidentally lift something from your sources or any templates or models you have.
Plagiarism is dangerous for students because of the severe consequences it brings.
But plagiarism isn’t something you need to be afraid of as long as you have a good handle on what you need to do to avoid it. The bottom line is this: Use your own words when you write, cite your sources when you refer to them, and place any exact words copied from a source in quotation marks. If you follow those simple rules, you’ll avoid plagiarism every time.