Don’t Copy! How to Avoid Plagiarizing

Plagiarism is the act of taking someone else’s words or ideas and passing them off as your own. It is always wrong, but it’s an especially serious offense as you go through high school and college and move into professional life. In school, students can fail a class or be expelled for plagiarizing all or part of a work, and in the professional world, it’s possible to lose not only a job or promotion, but also your reputation.

How to Avoid Plagiarism by Excellence in LitYou can learn to write a good paper that avoids plagiarism by using careful practices such as using multiple sources for research, citing each source carefully, and learning how to quote or paraphrase properly. Here are some tips to keep your writing ethical and your papers free of plagiarism.

Avoid plagiarism while researching

  • Research using multiple sources. Make it a habit to use at least three sources for every paper you write so that you are not simply restating the ideas of a single writer. If you are writing for school, your study guide or instructor will most likely provide specific guidelines for the types of sources to use.
  • Use reliable sources. Books, professional journals, and articles from websites with URLs ending in .edu tend to be more reliable than user-edited sites such as Wikipedia. The list of references found at the bottom of most Wikipedia articles can be tremendously useful in pointing the way to more reliable sources that can be used for further research and cited.
  • Cite your sources. When you directly copy someone else’s words or ideas in your writing, you must cite the source so that your readers know who the original writer was and where the words appeared. There are many different citation styles — MLA, APA, etc. — so be sure to use the one that is required by your instructor. You can find instructions for how to use the most common citation methods in your writer’s handbook or at Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL).
  • Take good notes as you research. When you are taking notes, be sure to distinguish between your own ideas and the ideas of others. You can do this by using quotation marks around the words of others and by writing down the source of the information. It can be helpful to use the notes app on your computer to keep a list of citations, including URLs to online works that you are citing.

Avoid plagiarizing during the writing process

  • Use your own argument. The best way to avoid plagiarism is to start with your own research-informed perspective on the topic you are writing about. Don’t just use sources you agree with, but also have sources that you can argue against.
  • Use your own words. Present your thesis and supporting points in your own words, using short quotes from multiple sources sparingly and appropriately. Never copy and paste whole passages from online sources.
  • Attribute any direct quotes. Quoting is using someone else’s exact words in your writing. When you quote, be sure to put the quoted material in quotation marks and cite the source.
  • Paraphrasing from multiple sources: Paraphrasing is restating someone else’s ideas in your own words. It can be fine to paraphrase an idea you have found in multiple sources, especially if you are drawing out a single idea or significantly shortening an explanation, but be sure to change the sentence structure and vocabulary so that your paraphrase is not simply a copy of the original text.
  • Paraphrasing from a single source: If you are paraphrasing from a single source it is a good idea to use a signal phrase that indicates the original source of the idea. For example, if you wanted to cite an idea from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, you might begin a paraphrased idea with a signal phrase such as “Thoreau suggests that . . .” or “According to Thoreau,  . . .”.

Avoid plagiarizing with AI (Artificial Intelligence)

Using artificial intelligence (AI) for writing assignments can seem tempting, but it can easily lead to plagiarism. This is because AI is created by computer algorithms that have been trained on vast datasets of text and code. These algorithms can learn to generate written work that is virtually indistinguishable from a human-written text. While using AI might seem like an easy to way generate essays, research papers, and other types of academic work, you must remember that this type of writing must be cited just like any other source.

If you submit an AI-generated essay or report without citing the source, it is considered plagiarism. Parents and teachers can use plagiarism checkers that look for patterns in the text that are characteristic of AI-generated writing. Experienced teachers or parents who are familiar with your writing ability and style can often detect AI-generated text when it sounds different from your normal writing. Things that are too perfect or that use language you don’t normally use, or unaccustomed grammatical errors such as mid-text jumps between first-person and third-person writing can all be warning signs of plagiarism via AI. Even a lack of creativity or stilted use of a standard writing pattern can be a red flag for an observant parent or teacher.

Do a final plagiarism check

When you finish your paper, go back over it to make sure that every quote is attributed correctly and that your citations are complete and correct. If you have paraphrased, especially from a single source, check to be sure that it’s clear that the idea expressed is not your own original thought. Rather than writing “It seems that most people lead quietly desperate lives,” it would generally be better to write something such as “Thoreau believed that most ‘men lead lives of quiet desperation’.” You have shortened this very famous quote and integrated it into your own sentence, but have also made it clear that you are not pretending that it is your own original thought.

Colleges sometimes use online plagiarism checkers such as Turnitin. Students submit their papers through this service, and it flags potentially plagiarized passages. The instructor will look over the paper as well, as the automated service can indicate that something is similar to another paper or passage, or even another student’s paper from the same class. The instructor can make the final decision on what similarities are acceptable. This service and other plagiarism detectors are well aware of the possibilities of new artificial intelligence resources and are continuing to develop ways of identifying AI-generated text.

There are other online plagiarism checkers from sites such as Grammarly that you can use before turning in your work. These detectors can help you identify any areas of your writing that may trigger a plagiarism warning. That way, you can fix these before submitting your work.

There are serious real-world consequences to plagiarism, but it really isn’t hard to avoid. By following the tips above, you can ensure that your writing is original and that you give credit to the sources you use.

The bees pillage the flowers here and there
but they make honey of them which is all their own;
it is no longer thyme or marjolaine:
so the pieces borrowed from others
he will transform and mix up into a work all his own.

— Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592)

Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) has a great deal of information about writing, citations, plagiarism, and much more. It’s free, and I recommend it.