Writing Tips

Avoiding Plagiarism

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Plagiarism is the gravest offense a writer can commit–it is considered intellectual theft, and can leave devastating effects on your academic and professional career. Our guide offers a collection of best practices that will help you avoid accidental plagiarism.

There are many reasons you should be concerned with plagiarism. Colleges and universities often have a zero-tolerance policy, which can lead to a failing grade, academic discipline, or even expulsion. In addition to these external consequences, you are ultimately depriving yourself of valuable learning experiences by presenting others’ work as your own.

In your professional life, plagiarism will damage your reputation as a trusted source/expert, and has been known to end peoples’ careers. Academics caught plagiarizing often have their entire body of research called into question, and publishers may redact their published articles retroactively. In this manner, an entire lifetime of work may be lost.

Best practices to avoid accidental plagiarism

Plagiarizing by mistake is a common error amongst beginning writers, but it is preventable. Avoid accidental plagiarism by following these best practices:

  • Keep all of your notes in one place–this will prevent you from missing or accidentally losing a source, or from accidentally co-opting a quote.
  • Take shorthand notes as you read, then refer only to the notes as you write. Do not direct cut and paste unless you intend to quote something. You should only quote sentences that are especially impactful, or would lose some meaning if not transcribed verbatim. As an example, you would not want to quote directions in a recipe, but you might want to quote people’s comments that tested the recipe.
  • Craft an outline of your paper before you begin writing, and stick to it as you write. This will serve as an additional “safety net” so your logic and ideas don’t perfectly mirror another’s writing.
  • Learn to paraphrase information. Use your own words by altering your sentence structure from the original source, replacing words with synonyms, and explaining how or why the information is important to your argument (i.e. put it in context).

Get into the habit of citing sources. As you grow as a writer, you will find that you get into a rhythm of citing as you write. Each definitive statement that you make in an argument should cite a source (or several) to back up your claim or illustrate your point. This means you will soon develop an intuitive feeling for when to cite as you write.

Understand info-sharing vs. plagiarism

In the age of remixes and sampling, appropriation and appreciation, it might be confusing to figure out when information-sharing crosses the line into plagiarism. When in doubt, cite the source of the idea you are sharing. It is only plagiarism once you’ve submitted others’ ideas without crediting them.

It might seem like simple advice, but there are nuances to this concept. If you are presenting a line of thought, or sequences of ideas/reasoning that mirror that of another creator, you must credit that source. It may seem obvious that you should never cut and paste without using quotation marks and your source, but presenting another’s line of reasoning as your own is more subtle. We’ve included some sample text below that you can adjust to the source and topic you’re writing about:

  • Following [AUTHOR]’s logic, as presented in their [YEAR] paper [TITLE OF PAPER], [INSERT THEIR LOGICAL ARGUMENT, IN YOUR OWN WORDS].
  • Our reasoning builds off that suggested by [AUTHOR (YEAR)], [PRESENT YOUR LOGIC].
  • Similar to [AUTHOR (YEAR)], we propose that [YOUR IDEAS IN YOUR OWN WORDS.]

To avoid any confusion

if you use any of these sentence structures, you do not have to cite us as a source, since we’re offering them to you as an educational resource :)

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