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Avoiding Plagiarism

Simply put, plagiarism is acting as if someone else's work is your own—or using another person's ideas or words without acknowledging the source. And in this day of unprecedented, easy access to information, the temptation to plagiarize rather than come up with one's own original content is huge. Unfortunately, many "paper mills" have sprung up on the internet to encourage students to plagiarize with offers of "free papers" (for a fee) for "research purposes" (yeah, right). Plagiarism is highly unethical, and even illegal, and it can get you an "F" on a paper, or even expelled from school.

Sometimes, particularly when students are writing a research paper, they do not fully understand when a source must be acknowledged and end up plagiarizing without really intending to.  In addition, students may get frustrated trying to figure out where their own voice is supposed to be in a research paper, and so they end up giving up and just using the words of someone who can "say it so much better" than they feel they can.

In this module, students will learn

  • What counts as plagiarism.
  • When they must cite a source.
  • How to summarize and paraphrase without plagiarizing.
  • When something is "common knowledge" and does not require a citation.
  • How to take notes to avoid plagiarism later on.
  • The difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement.



What is Plagiarism?

The minute an author writes something down, either for publication or on a yellow pad that ends up in the back of a file cabinet, that work belongs to the author. When a person other than the author uses that author's work and does not acknowledge the source, that person is plagiarizing, committing an illegal and unethical act.  As long as the source is acknowledged, and as long as only a short passage or sentence is being used, however, it is perfectly appropriate to use the words of another author.

Below are instances of plagiarism:

  • Downloading an essay from a paper mill and submitting it as your own work.
  • Borrowing a friend's essay and submitting it as your own work.
  • Cutting and pasting passages of text—even a single sentence or phrase—into your own work without acknowledging the source.
  • Summarizing the ideas of another writer without acknowledging that the ideas are not your own. (see common knowledge below for an exception)
  • Using another writer's thesis as your own without acknowledging the source.
  • Using another writer's essay structure as your own without acknowledging the source.


When to Cite a Source

  • When you are quoting an author word for word.
  • When you are paraphrasing an author's work.
  • When you are summarizing ideas in an author's work.
  • When you are using the thesis or argument structure of another writer.

For more information on integrating these sources into your own writing, see our module on Working with Sources.



How to Summarize and Paraphrase Without Plagiarizing

As a general rule, one should paraphrase rather than quote a text unless the language is particularly beautiful or the words themselves carry significant meaning. Yet, good paraphrase is an art form. One must capture the essence of an author's meaning without borrowing the author's language. Below is an example of a correct paraphrase of an author's work followed by an incorrect paraphrase.  The original passage from E. M. Foster's novel, Howards End is presented first:

Original Text:

“I do pity you from the bottom of my heart. To be parted from your house, your father's house—it oughtn't to be allowed. It is worse than dying”  (Chapter 10).

Correct Paraphrase:

Ruth Wilcox is horrified at the thought that Margaret is to be cast out of her home. For Ruth, one's home is a part of one's own self.

Plagiarism in a Paraphrase:

Ruth Wilcox pities Margaret from the bottom of her heart, believing that being evicted from one's home is worse than dying.

The second example includes plagiarized text. Several words from the original text are used (or are very closely echoed) without acknowledgement.

Original Text:

She approached just as Helen's letter had described her, trailing noiselessly over the lawn, and there was actually a wisp of hay in her hands. She seemed to belong not to the young people and their motor, but to the house, and to the tree that overshadowed it. One knew that she worshipped the past, and that the instinctive wisdom the past can alone bestow had descended upon her—that wisdom to which we give the clumsy name of aristocracy. High born she might not be. But assuredly she cared about her ancestors, and let them help her.


Ruth Wilcox is a reassuring, calming presence, a kind of mystic of Howards End who has learned to read the map to the past, and travel back and forth between past and present: Her role in the novel is to teach others who will listen (i.e., Margaret) to hear the voices of the past.  Indeed, the plot hinges on the fact that Ruth has willed Howards End to Margaret in whom she sees a spiritual heir. 

Plagiarism in a Paraphrase:

Ruth Wilcox has an instinctive wisdom bestowed upon her by her connection with the past. Her role in the novel is to teach others to hear the voices of the past.

To avoid plagiarism in paraphrase, write your paraphrase without looking at the original text.  Try to think of what the original text really expresses and attempt to capture that expression in your own words. 


Common Knowledge

You do not need to provide source a citation or acknowledgement for information that is widely known. Examples of the kinds of information that would count as common knowledge are given below:

Los Angeles is a younger city than New York City.

Palm trees will not grow well in cold climates.

Faulkner wrote about the American South.

Nurses are in demand these days.

On the other hand, source information must be provided for information that is unusual, particularly detailed, esoteric, or new. Examples of the kinds of information that would need to be cited are shown below:

The town of "Rooks Nest" in the novel Howards End is based upon the real town of Stevenage.

43% of new students at the college are qualified to enroll in English 1A.

Brittney Spears was recently in trouble with Child Protective Services for driving with her baby in her lap rather than in a protective car seat.



How to Take Notes to Avoid Plagiarism

When you are first doing research is the time to start thinking about how you will avoid plagiarism. Embarrassing accidents can happen when students take notes and jot down quotes from sources without clear indicators on the page that the material came from another author. Later on, students can easily mistake the notes for their own work. A good way to avoid this potential problem is to circle quotes, put a big "Q" next to quoted material, put quotation marks around the text, or use any other marking system that seems useful for distinguishing quotations.  Also, be sure to write down the source information for the author so that you will have it if you need it for in-text citations and a Works Cited page.



Plagiarism vs. Copyright Infringement

Sometimes, students get plagiarism confused with copyright infringement.  Though these terms both refer to illegal use of another person's work, they are actually different types of crimes. As mentioned above, plagiarism is using the words or ideas of another writer and representing them as one's own.  Students (and some journalists and politicians) plagiarize when they are unsure of their own ideas, are too lazy to do the work themselves, or because they took bad research notes and were unable to distinguish between their own writing and quotations from sources. Plagiarism can get a student expelled, or a journalist or politician fired. 

Copyright infringement is taking the creative work of another, a work of literature, film, music, or art without the copyright holder's consent. A copyright violation is about stealing rather than about pretending that a work is one's own. However, an exception to an author's copyright is the "Fair Use" law which states that a small portion of a text (a sentence or a short passage), a brief excerpt from a film or piece of music or other creative work may be used when the motive for use is educational (not for profit).  See the links below for more information on copyright and fair use. Also, for a wonderful video defining (and arguing against) current copyright law, take a look at Eric Faden's "A Fair(y) Use Tale."


US Copyright Office
US Copyright Fair Use Policy




1. What is plagiarism

2. When to cite a source

3. How to summarize & paraphrase

4. What is "common knowledge"?

5. How to take notes to avoid plagiarism

6. Plagiarism vs. copyright infringement

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