How to Avoid Plagarism

Plagiarism: stealing the intellectual work of someone else and passing it off as your own. 

While this definition seems simple enough, plagiarism takes many forms. It can be deliberate—such as paying someone to write an essay—but it can be innocent—like forgetting to cite  sources. 

No matter where plagiarism falls on this continuum, the result is the same: using someone else’s words or ideas without giving credit is stealing. It’s the same thing as looking over the shoulder of a fellow student during a math exam or smuggling in notes to a science test. If you are caught, the penalties can range anywhere from receiving a zero on a paper to being suspended or expelled. Teachers would rather see an honest, even flawed, effort from their students rather than the perfected work of someone else.   

Let’s take a look at what is considered plagiarism and how it can be avoided. 

What Is Considered Plagiarism?

1) Buying a paper. 

This may be the most obvious form of plagiarism. Buying a paper is deliberate stealing and, if caught, will definitely incur the most severe disciplinary penalties. Increasingly, more and more high schools, colleges, and universities are using plagiarism detection services such as, which can tell instructors just how much of a paper was stolen. While some essay writing “services” may say that a “purchase” is undetectable, they should not be trusted. The same goes for buying papers from other students—especially those who may have completed a similar assignment! 

Again, claiming work that is not your own is considered plagiarism. Bottom line: don’t buy a paper. It’s not worth the risk or your money.     

2) Not citing your source.  

It’s common in essays to directly quote from someone, like an expert or author, or paraphrase her ideas. In using the format your instructor prefers (e.g., MLA, Chicago, or APA), you must say where you have located the quotation and/or ideas. Failing to do so makes it appear that either you are claiming the ideas as your own or you have not put in the effort to verify your materials. 

It’s important to note that paraphrasing does not mean changing a couple of words or rearranging the original sentence to then claim it as your own. If your work too closely resembles the original,  it’s still considered plagiarizing, not paraphrasing. If you want proof of just how much the literary community looks down on this failure to cite sources, consider the case of the famous historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose inattention to citation nearly destroyed her reputation

3) Claiming someone else’s work as your own. 

While cutting and pasting from the Internet or copying passages out of a book constitutes plagiarism, another form of academic dishonesty is to have someone else write your paper (or portions of your paper) for you. This is not to say that you shouldn’t talk to knowledgeable people to get their perspectives on your subject, but having someone else substantially write words for you is cheating. 

Most instructors will know your “voice,” whether from previous assignments or from your in-class discussions. If your ideas and phrasing seem noticeably different from your usual efforts, be sure that a teacher’s alarm will sound. 

4) Taking a little of this, a little of that. 

Teachers have keen noses for plagiarism. One of their most unpleasant duties is tracking down uncited text pieced together from many sources. You might think that if the entire passage isn’t copied word for word, professors will not be able to detect plagiarism; however, this is not the case. It is no more difficult for instructors to locate the multiple source materials than it was for you to find them in the first place. 

What Is Not Plagiarism?

1) Common knowledge. 

Information considered common knowledge or in the public domain does not need to be cited. Certain facts are so well-known that you don’t need to worry about finding verification. 

For example, saying that “the sun rises in the east and sets in the west” or that there are “fifty states in the USA” need not be cited.

If you’re unsure about what is considered common knowledge, ask yourself: “Did this information or idea come from my own brain? Did I know this information before I took this course?” 

2) Your own opinions and conclusions. 

A good paper relies on both primary and secondary source material, but your own thoughts and opinions about the text and its commentators are obviously yours and need not be cited. 

For example, if you decide that Charlotte Bronte’s character Jane Eyre is a forerunner to the modern feminist movement, and you’ve drawn your opinion based on quotations from the novel and its critics, you are entitled to your opinion and, indeed, it is desired!

How to Be Honest?

1) Never cut and paste unless you use a direct quotation. 

It is too easy to forget where and why you’ve used a source, so avoid cutting and pasting unless you’re absolutely sure you want to use the quotation word for word. Also, you should immediately make note of the source so that you can remember it and properly cite it in your paper.  

2) Create a separate file for Internet materials. 

Anything you want to summarize or paraphrase from the Internet should be kept separate from your paper in order to avoid unintentional plagiarism. Be sure to bookmark sites or otherwise make note of anything you may wish to use in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety later.

3) Recheck any suspect language. 

Review your paper, and if a word, phrase, or passage doesn’t seem like your own thinking and/or writing, type a few words into a search engine to verify its originality. Better you should catch it now and properly cite it than to be accused of plagiarizing!

4) Request a peer review. 

Sometimes you can look at a paper or passage for so long that you might no longer see errors. If at all possible, have someone review your work before turning it in. A friend or classmate may easily key in on language that seems out of character for you or point out obvious omissions in citations.

For more how-to lesson, visit eNotes’ How To Series.