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How to Avoid Plagiarism
Merriam-Webster defines plagiarism as the act of stealing or passing off the words or ideas of another as your own, or using another person’s creation without crediting them as the source. When you’re writing, it’s essential that you express your own thoughts and ideas rather than reproducing the words or ideas of another. It sounds straightforward, but people sometimes plagiarize without being aware of it; even people who earn their living as writers have been accused of plagiarizing. Intentional or not, it’s important that you know what steps to take in order to avoid plagiarism in your writing, now and in the future.
Fortunately, there are guidelines to keep in mind as you write, and this primer will provide you with some strategies to ensure your writing reflects only your own thoughts and reasoning, and not the thoughts and reasoning of others. Consider these strategies before you begin checking sources for a writing assignment—that way, you will approach both your research and your writing with these strategies in mind. These strategies will help you write more productively and thoughtfully, which in turn means a better academic experience for you!
A research paper should present your ideas and thoughts on a subject, supported by previous research and scholarship. Before you start, it’s important to know what sources need to be documented. Facts that are common knowledge generally don’t need to be documented—for example, that Abraham Lincoln was the sixteenth president or that Tallahassee is the capital of Florida.
On the other hand, direct quotes, paraphrases, summaries, facts used as evidence, and others’ ideas do need to be documented. Something else to keep in mind is that the research process can take longer than you anticipate and include many different sources, so it’s important to keep track of what’s what. Dividing your notes into the following three categories can assist with this:
- your own ideas and analysis,
- your paraphrases and summaries of others’ ideas and facts, and
- any direct quotes you copy down from sources.
By categorizing your notes, you can refer back to them when you’re deep in the process of writing your paper and rest assured in the knowledge that they accurately capture what information came from which source.
Categorizing your notes will also help you avoid unintentional plagiarism. Unintentional plagiarism can occur despite your best efforts, so you should take extra care to avoid it when reviewing and revising your work. While it is perfectly fine to borrow facts, words, or thoughts that support the main idea in your paper, you must clearly document supporting information. Direct quotes from sources must appear in quotation marks, and you also need to cite sources for paraphrases and any other outside facts or information that aren’t attributable to common knowledge.
Finally, while it isn’t always possible to avoid paraphrasing, summarizing, or quoting long passages, always remember that one of the most surefire ways to prevent plagiarism is to strive to write in your own words. In the course of doing your research, you may come across passages that align with your thinking, but making the effort to put your own unique spin on those passages will help you to develop and refine your ideas and sharpen your writing skills.
To learn more about tracking sources and how different authorities apply styles to sources, see the following websites:
- Modern Language Association (www.mla.org)
- American Psychological Association (www.apa.org)
- Chicago Manual of Style (www.chicagomanualofstyle.org).
In addition, running your paper through an online plagiarism checker is highly recommended. You can check your work simply by copying and pasting text into the plagiarism checker. Always remember, however, that this is part of the writing process, and not just a cursory task to complete on the morning your paper is due. In fact, you should leave time before the due date so that there’s time to revise any writing that the plagiarism checker highlights for you.