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How to Avoid Plagiarism

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Academic writing is filled with rules that writers, particularly beginners, aren’t aware of or don’t know how to follow. Many of these rules have to do with research and proper citation. Familiarizing yourself with these rules is critical to avoid charges of plagiarism. Plagiarism is defined as the uncredited use (both intentional and unintentional) of somebody else’s words or ideas.

While some cultures may not require strict documentation of word, ideas, images, sounds, etc., American culture does. A charge of plagiarism can have severe consequences – failing a class, expulsion from college. You will also experience a loss of credibility and professional standing.

There are some intellectual challenges that all students are faced with when writing. Sometimes these challenges can appear to be contradictory. Professors often instruct students to develop a topic that is based on what has already been said and written but to write something new and original.

There are some actions that can clearly be labeled plagiarism. These include buying, stealing, or borrowing a paper (including copying material from the internet), hiring someone to write your paper for you, and copying large sections of text from a source without quotation marks or proper citation.

There are some actions that are questionable. These include using the words of a source too closely when paraphrasing (where quotation marks should have been used) or building on someone’s ideas without citing their work. Sometimes professors who suspect students of plagiarism will consider the students’ intent, and whether it appears to be a deliberate attempt to make the ideas of others appear to be his or her own. Other teachers and administrators may not distinguish between deliberate and accidental plagiarism.

The key to avoiding plagiarism is to make sure you give credit where it is due. This can be credit for something somebody said, wrote, drew, or implied. Many professional organizations, including the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Psychological Association (APA), have lengthy guidelines for citing sources. Students are usually busy trying to learn the rules of MLA or APA format and styles and sometimes forget what needs to be credited to someone else. You should document any words or ideas that originate outside of you. Things that need to documented include:

  • Words or ideas presented in a magazine, book, newspaper, song, TV program, movie, web page, computer program, letter, advertisement, or any other medium
  • Information you gain through interviewing or conversing with another person whether it is face to face, over the phone, or in writing
  • When you copy exact words or a unique phrase
  • When you reprint any diagrams, illustrations, charts, pictures, or other visual materials
  • When you reuse or repost any electronically-available media, including images, audio, video, or other media.

Some things do not require documentation. Some of these include:

  • Writing about your own experiences, your own observations and insights, your own thoughts, and your own conclusions.
  • When you are writing up your own results obtained through lab or field experiments.
  • When you use your own artwork, digital photographs, video, audio, etc.
  • When you are using “common knowledge,” things like folklore, common sense observations, myths, urban legends, and historical events (this does not include historical documents).
  • When you are using generally-accepted facts.

You can consider something common knowledge if you find identical information undocumented in at least five credible sources. It might be common knowledge if you think the information is something your readers already know or something that someone could easily locate in general reference sources. When in doubt, cite.

Most students don’t intend to plagiarize. They know that citing sources builds their credibility. Mistakes can occur, though. Here are a few practices to help you avoid plagiarism:

  • Note-taking
    • Always mark someone else’s words in your notes
    • Indicate which ideas in your notes are from someone else and which ideas are your own.
    • Record source information in your notes – book and article titles, URLS, etc.)
  • Interviews and Conversations
    • Always distinguish between your questions and someone else’s answers.
    • Record the interview or conversation if allowed. Always ask permission from the person you are interviewing or talking to.
    • If the interview is done by email, retain copies of all correspondence.
    • Make any additional notes immediately after the interview while it is fresh in your mind.
  • Writing Paraphrases or Summaries
    • Use a statement that credits the source somewhere in the paraphrase or summary (According to George Bush…).
    • Write your paraphrase or summary without looking at the original. Rely only on your memory and notes.
    • Check your paraphrase or summary against the original text. Correct any errors in accuracy and be sure to use quotation marks to set off any exact phrases.
    • Check your paraphrase or summary against sentence and paragraph structure. Copying those is also considered plagiarism.
    • Put quotation marks around any unique words or phrases that you cannot or do not want to change.
  • Writing Direct Quotations
    • Keep the author’s name in the same sentence as the quote.
    • Mark the quote with quotation marks.
    • Quote no more material than is necessary. If a short phrase will suffice, don’t quote an entire paragraph.
    • To shorten quotes by removing extra information, use ellipsis points (…) to indicate omitted text. (Three ellipsis points indicates an in-sentence ellipsis, and four points indicate an ellipsis between two sentences).
    • To give context to a quote or to add words to it, place added words in brackets, [ ].Do not editorialize or make any additions that may skew the original meaning of the quote. You can do that in your main text.
    • Use quotes that will have the most impact in your paper. Too many direct quotes from sources may weaken your credibility. It may appear as though you have nothing original to say and will interfere with your style
  • Writing About Another’s Ideas
    • Note the name of the idea’s originator in the sentence or paragraph about the idea.
    • Use parenthetical citations, footnotes, or endnotes to refer readers to additional sources about the idea.
    • Be sure to use quotation marks around key phrases or words that the idea’s originator used to describe the idea.

When you proofread your paper, make sure that anything coming from an outside source is acknowledged in some combination of the following ways:

  • In-text citation, otherwise known as parenthetical citation
  • Footnotes or endnotes
  • Bibliography, References, or Works Cited pages
  • Quotation marks around short quotes. Longer quotes set off by themselves
  • Indirect quotations: citing a source that cites another source

Unfortunately, plagiarism is a somewhat common occurrence. In a recent study, 84% of students admitted to cheating on written assignments. Over 45% admitted to collaborating inappropriately with others on assignments. 15% had submitted a paper obtained from a commercial term paper service or website. 52% had copied a few sentences from a website without citing the source.

With the accessibility of the internet, students can easily plagiarize by copying and pasting information from other sources. This is often detected for several reasons. Students’ choices of sources are frequently unoriginal. Instructors may receive the same passage copied from a popular source from several students. Students may choose sources which are inappropriate, off-topic, or contain incorrect information. Some instructors insist that submitted work is first submitted to an online plagiarism detector.

Plagiarism will continue until student attitudes change. Almost 85% of college students felt cheating was necessary to get ahead. If you need to plagiarize your work, you may want to reconsider if college is for you. A successful college career requires you to be an active learner. Using someone else’s words as your own is not active learning.


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