You can take steps to avoid plagiarism in your writing by carefully managing your time, keeping a good record of your sources, and by knowing when and how to appropriately cite your sources.
Manage Your Time
Plagiarism is often the result of procrastination. Doing research, writing your paper, and incorporating sources correctly takes time. Cobbling your paper together the night before it is due leaves you susceptible to unintentional plagiarism. In your rush, you may use your sources improperly or forget to cite.
Waiting until the last minute to do your paper also increases the appeal of buying a paper online or trying to turn in a paper you wrote previously for a different class. If you are caught doing those things, there can be very serious consequences.
Develop a Note-Taking System
When you are in the middle of doing research, make sure that you use a note-taking system that clearly differentiates the following things: your own personal thoughts on the sources, quotes taken directly from the sources (with a page number), and summaries or paraphrases of the source.
One strategy you could apply during your note taking is the use of different colors to differentiate what text was copied directly from the source, from what you wrote using your own words. Here’s an example:
Reference management websites and applications are excellent tools to help you keep track of your sources. Most of these websites are free and will even create the works cited page for you! Some of the most popular citation tools are:
Pick one of these helpful tools at the beginning of your research and use it during your initial searches to ensure you always keep track of your materials.
Know What Needs a Citation
The key to avoiding plagiarism is to make sure you give credit where credit is due. This may be credit for something somebody said, wrote, emailed, drew, or implied. You need to give credit to:
- Words or ideas presented in a magazine, book, newspaper, song, TV program, movie, web page, computer program, letter, advertisement, or any other medium
- Information you gain through interviewing or conversing with another person face-to-face, over the phone, or in writing
- Exact words or a unique phrase that you copy
- Diagrams, illustrations, charts, pictures, or other visual materials that you reprint
- Any electronically available media, including images, audio, video, or other media, that you reuse or repost.
Ultimately, you must cite any source of information you use in your paper that doesn’t originate with you. You do NOT need to cite:
- your own ideas and opinions
- your own words
- common knowledge
Examples of common knowledge include:
- Basic facts: there are 365 days in a year, the earth orbits the sun, the molecular structure of water (H2O), etc.
- Very well-known quotes: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” or “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” You still have to use quotation marks and indicate who said the quote (Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and John F. Kennedy, respectively), but you do not need to include the source in your bibliography.
- Subject-specific common knowledge: There is information in specific disciplines or branches of knowledge that is considered common knowledge. A good indicator of what constitutes common knowledge is if you see the information in 4 or 5 articles or books and it does not need a citation. Until you become familiar with what is considered common knowledge in your major area of study, it is best to play it safe and cite your sources or ask your professor.
Know How to Incorporate Sources
You can incorporate other sources into your writing by paraphrasing, summarizing, or using direct quotes. With each of these techniques, you must always cite the original work.
Paraphrasing is using another author’s idea, but expressing it in your own words and without quotation marks, since is it no longer a word-for-word quotation. A proper paraphrase is substantially different from the original text.
Summarizing condenses the main idea of a whole text, or of several texts, into a substantially shorter form while capturing the most important elements.
A direct quotation uses exactly the same words as the text you are taking it from, and it puts the exact words in quotation marks. Always include the page number, when possible, when citing a direct quotation: (Smith 116).
Know How to Accurately Cite Your Sources
Knowing how to cite your sources properly is one of the most important skills to have in order to avoid plagiarism. Anytime you paraphrase, summarize, or use a direct quote in your research assignment, you must provide a citation in the text and list the source in your bibliography. We’ll cover exactly how to do that in the next section.
Let’s return to Marvin’s research. He’s already learned from the online professor about walking, talking, and cooking with his sources. Now the professor reminds Marvin about one more important step for utilizing sources in his research.
O-Prof: In college writing, if you use a source in a paper, you’re expected to let the reader know exactly how to find that source as well. Providing this “source address” information for your sources is known as documenting your sources.
Marvin: What do you mean by a “source address”?
O-Prof: It’s directions for finding the source. A mailing address tells you how to find a person: the house number, street, city, state, and zip code. To help your readers find your sources, it’s customary to give them the name of the author; the title of the book or article or website; and other information such as date, location of publication, publisher, even the database in which a source is located. Or, if it’s a website, you might give the name of the site and/or the date on which you accessed it. Source documentation can be complicated, because the necessary source address information differs for different types of sources (e.g., books vs. journal articles, electronic vs. print). Additionally, different disciplines (e.g., history, philosophy, psychology, literature, etc.) use different “address” formats. Eventually, you’ll become familiar with the documentation conventions for your own academic major, but source documentation takes a lot of practice. In the meantime, your teachers and various writing handbooks can provide instructions on what information you’ll need.
Marvin: Do I really need to include all that information? A lot of times, the sources I use are readings my teachers have assigned, so they already know where to find them.
O-Prof: Your teachers don’t always know where all your sources are from, and they also want you to get into the habit of source documentation. And what about your other readers? If they’re deeply interested in your topic, they may want to find more information than you’ve included in your paper. Your source documentation allows them to find the original source. And there are other reasons for documenting sources. It can help readers understand your own position on a topic, because they can see which authors you agree with and which you don’t. It also shows readers you’ve taken time to investigate your topic and aren’t just writing off the top of your head. If readers see that your ideas are based on trustworthy sources, they’re more likely to trust what you say.