How to Avoid Plagiarism

How to Avoid Plagiarism

Plagiarism. Trust us, it is something you don’t ever want to be accused of doing. In most schools, if you’re caught plagiarizing, you will get an automatic F on your paper and may even face additional academic consequences.

Many students think that in order to be guilty of plagiarism, you need to have bought or copied an entire paper from someone else, but in fact, you can be accused of plagiarism any time you use more than a few words together that were used in that same order by someone else. You can even be accused of plagiarism if you use ideas that are not your own without giving credit to the source where you found them.

The bottom line is, if you didn’t write it or think of it yourself, you need to cite the source it came from.

There are a few instances, however, where citations aren’t necessary. The first is if you are writing your own original thoughts or opinions about something. The second is when you are including information that is considered common knowledge.

So how do you know if something is considered common knowledge? Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) offers a good rule of thumb: If you can find the same piece of information in more than five sources, you probably don’t need to cite it. Plus, any basic historical facts, common sense observations, or generally accepted facts (for example, UV rays are bad for your skin or apples are a healthy food), are basic enough that they don’t need to be cited.

Still, if you’re unsure about whether something is common knowledge, it’s better to over-use citations than to under-use them in your writing.

Even if you are not copying someone else’s words directly into your essay, you still need to include a citation when you are summarizing or paraphrasing ideas that you gleaned from somewhere else.

For example, if you’re writing a paper about traveling to Mars, you wouldn’t have to cite the fact that the average distance from Earth to Mars is about 225 million km, but you would have to cite a statistic such as how long one of NASA’s Exploration Rovers has been on Mars. You could say, “According to, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity has been on the Red Planet since 2004.”

One pitfall that many students fall into is in the research stage of a paper when they copy and paste information from various websites into a Word document to read through and quote from later. If you do this, make sure you document where each piece of information came from so you can cite correctly, and make sure to restate the information in your own words when you actually go to write your paper.

Here are a few tips on how to choose quotes for an essay and cite your sources properly:

  1. Pick quotes that have something interesting to say
    When choosing quotes for an English paper, look for ones that have interesting word choice, imagery, symbolism, or figurative language, or really capture the personality of a character. If you could get the information across just as easily in your own words, it’s not worth quoting.
  2. Keep the quotes short
    Choose quotes that take up four lines or fewer in your paper. Remember, quotes should be used to prove a point and support your thesis, not just take up space.
  3. Say things in your own words
    The best way to avoid plagiarizing someone else is to say things in your own words. Try reading the quote and then think about what questions someone might ask after reading it and answer those questions, or choose a few keywords from a quote and elaborate on why they’re significant. You can even explain to the reader what opinion you think they should have about that quote.
  4. Cite the author
    There are lots of rules about exactly how to use citations in your paper, and the best thing to do is to follow whatever citation style your teacher requires, usually either MLA or APA style. For more details about how to do it properly, check out Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL).Also, at the end of your essay, make sure to include the bibliographic information for all of the works cited in the paper. This doesn’t need to be on a separate piece of paper, simply put it at the bottom of the essay and alphabetize all entries. Again, follow the MLA or APA guidelines for how to format these.

It may feel like a lot of work, but in the long run you’ll be glad that you wrote a paper that you could honestly say was your own.