How to Avoid Plagiarism

Plagiarism is the practice of falsely representing as one’s own any language, thoughts, ideas, designs, or expression in a paper, exam, or other work. In short, it means taking someone’s else’s work and passing it off as yours. There are severe consequences for plagiarism in your academic, work, and personal lives.

Plagiarism may take many forms. Here are some of the more comment forms that occur in an academic setting:

  • Copying words or ideas from printed or online sources without citing the sources properly

  • Copying all or part of another student’s work and passing it off as yours

  • Buying essays or papers from others and passing them off as your own

What I’ve discovered as an instructor is that there are fewer students who plagiarize purposely. Instead, many students inadvertently plagiarize out of laziness or ignorance. Most of us learn about how to cite and how not to plagiarize in middle school and high school. Most colleges assume that you already know how to cite your sources; grad school definitely assumes that you know. Unfortunately, many students’ knowledge in this critical area of scholarly work is spotty. The rigors of academic work can cause students to slip a bit in their citations, assuming that no one will notice. Or they are working so quickly that they don't remember what idea came from where. Students not only cheat themselves out of the benefits of their education, but they also set themselves up for a lot of trouble. Professors such as myself try to put the fear of God into our students to help them avoid this unnecessary heartache!

What Do You Need to Cite?

When you use someone else’s words and phrases in your work, you must enclose them in quotation marks and give the writer credit by citing your source. For instructors, it is easy to identify writing styles that don’t sound like the rest of your work. 

When you use someone else’s ideas or original research in your work, you must cite the source. In this case, paraphrase. When you paraphrase, you restate someone else’s ideas in your own words. Although the words are your own, the ideas aren’t, so you still need to cite them. When you're in doubt, cite. 

Keep careful notes as you do research, including where ideas came from so that you can easily cite the material in your paper. I cannot emphasize this enough; the minute it takes to record your citation will save you minutes and hours later on. Be kind to your future self and take good notes in the present. 

Also read and understand your school’s academic integrity policy, as well as your instructors' policies if they have them. Ensure that you are not inadvertently doing something that would cause concern with your work.

What Don’t You Need to Cite?

If the piece of information you want to use is considered common knowledge, you do not have to cite it. Will an average reader accept the statement as reliable without having to look it up?

To decide whether information could be considered common knowledge, ask yourself the following questions

  • Who is my audience?

  • What can I assume they already know?

  • Will I be asked where I obtained my information?

Information that most people know or are shared by members of a certain field or cultural or national group is considered common knowledge. If you are writing to an audience outside of these groups, the information may not be deemed common knowledge. 

If you have questions about if something is regarded as common knowledge in your field, ask your instructor.


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