If you’re accused of plagiarism and found to be guilty, you can be expelled from school or lose your job and work prospects. A famous example of this is Stephen Glass. Glass was an up-and-coming news reporter in the 1990s who was accused of plagiarism and subsequently fired. It turns out he had been making up entire sources with fake quotes, events, and people. He was forced out of the industry and according to iMediaEthics, he’s paid over $200,000 as a result of his actions. I learned about Glass’s story years ago in a high school journalism class (sorry, I can’t remember my teacher’s name), and it always stuck with me.
Plagiarism should first and foremost be thought about as an ethical violation, as it involves stealing work or falsifying information. But in many countries, it goes way beyond moral considerations. Plagiarism can also send you to court, with dreadful consequences for your career, reputation, and finances. So, whether you’re writing for your academic studies or for work - such as an article for a magazine or a report for your company - you need to know how to not plagiarize, even accidentally.
What is plagiarism?
According to Merriam Webster, the word plagiarism means “to steal or pass off as one’s own,” and comes from the Latin word plagiarius, which means “kidnapper.” Based on this definition, one might think that plagiarism only occurs when you claim ownership over someone else's creation. Things are actually a bit more complex.
Indeed, experts agree that such reprehensible behavior can occur in a variety of situations. Bowdoin.edu, for example, classified them into these four most common types of plagiarism:
Direct plagiarism: Claiming someone else’s work as your own, or copying without quotation marks and/or citation.
Mosaic plagiarism: Also known as “patchwriting,” this occurs when borrowing phrases from a source without quotation marks, changing only a few words here and there.
Accidental plagiarism: Giving credit to the wrong author(s) or misquoting.
Self-plagiarism: Reusing your own published or submitted work - even just some parts - for a new assignment.
Of course, you can’t be expected to cite every bit of information. Just like the air that you breathe, certain data cannot be attributed to anyone or are so well known that the average, educated reader wouldn’t have to look it up to accept it. A great example of this are historical dates, such as major wars and sporting events. In these cases, you don’t need to worry about attributing the information to anyone.
With that said, if you’re ever unsure, it's always best to cite your sources and be as transparent as possible.
How to avoid plagiarism?
There are several proven ways to protect yourself and ensure you don’t inadvertently copy someone else’s work. Continue reading to learn how to avoid plagiarism in your writing:
Organize your research
Evaluate your sources
Cite your sources
Quote your own work
Use a plagiarism checker
Proofread your work
Get a second set of eyes
Try to be original
01. Organize your research
Too many writing mistakes are made when you’re feeling rushed. From the moment you start conducting your research and compiling notes, make sure everything is well organized in a spreadsheet, document or folder. This will help you track down your sources and give them proper citations. It will also ensure you don’t use something you read by accident.
I like to classify all my research material in a dedicated spreadsheet, and include the quotes, stats and surveys I want to use later on. This makes it easy to cite my sources and confirm I didn’t unwittingly copy something I read. Plus, I can include small notes every time I curate an idea and want to remind myself, during the writing phase, that I need to reframe it with my own words.
In an ideal world, you’d give yourself plenty of time to write and edit. But well, we don't live in an ideal world. So, make sure to at least stay organized during the research phase - it’s one of the simplest, yet safest ways to avoid plagiarism.
02. Evaluate your sources
Not all sources are equal. You can easily fall into the trap of repeating false or inaccurate information, especially when you consider that, today, most research is done on the internet. Let’s say you found this groundbreaking new theory online. How do you know the article you’re reading gave credit to the proper person, team or lab? And if they have cited their own sources, how do you know these sources were accurate?
Here are a few steps to take in order to avoid plagiarism when using secondary sources:
As a rule of thumb, whenever you’re questioning the reliability of a source, it’s best to avoid using it and continue your research.
Evaluate all your sources and always go for those that are more trustworthy - like notable scholarly journals, reputable newspapers, and established references in an industry (e.g. The Webster’s Dictionary, The Encyclopedia Britannica, The Chicago Manual of Style, etc.).
While they are most likely to have done their own research, there’s always a chance even these authoritative sources used a second-hand reference. Do your best to track down the original source, and don’t forget to quote accordingly. Here’s an example of how you can quote a secondary source in your paper or work.
Example: As found in Cooper, Sheldon. “My Favorite Flags,” Vexillology Today, 2023, pp. 71-82.
03. Use quotes
Whenever you want to quote someone word for word, you need to use quotation marks and cite the author and source.
Example: In his article, “The Physics of Party Planning,” Dr. Rajesh Koothrappali says that “the data is in and experts agree: you can learn a lot from astrophysics when planning a party.”
By using direct quotes, you’re guaranteed to avoid plagiarism, as it makes it clear to readers you’re not trying to pass someone’s creation as your own work. With that said, you shouldn’t just stuff your writing with an endless string of quotes. Find a balance and don’t rely on direct quotations to fill space. Instead, only use quotes when they add unique value in their original form, or when the meaning would be lost if you’d paraphrase instead.
I like to think of paraphrasing as taking the essence of someone else’s thoughts or work and providing it to your audience in your own words. This might be a subtle rephrasing, or just a more concise summary.
Example: When it comes to finding the perfect mate, studies concur that showing persistence is the number one factor in success (Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler, How to Land Your Dream Man, 2023, pp. 6-7).
Paraphrasing is a great way to reference other people’s writings and is an alternative to copying them word for word with quotation marks. On top of that, it gives you more flexibility in terms of voice and grammar. Yet, paraphrasing doesn’t mean simply rewording without giving attribution - which will fall under mosaic plagiarism. When paraphrasing, you’re not exempted from giving the source, and when working on an academic paper, it should always be included in your reference page.
05. Cite your sources
It’s not negotiable: You need to cite your sources whenever you are referring to one of them—both when using a direct quote and when paraphrasing. There are several formats for citing sources (such as MLA and Chicago Manual of Style), and the one you use generally depends on the type of writing you’re doing. Make sure to consistently apply the same format throughout your document and ask your editor or professor if there is any doubt.
For most documents, the source will be inserted as a footnote. When working on an academic research paper, a concise version of the attribution should appear straight in the body of your text, in parentheses - e.g. (Hofstadter, 2031 : 49) - and the full one will be displayed at the end of your work, also referred to as a “bibliography” or “works cited page.” If you’re in school, check with your professor about the format you’re using, and be as accurate as possible when citing and creating the subsequent reference page.
Example (MLA format):
Hofstadter, Leonard. “Living with Roommates.” Freedom Across the Hall, March 2031, pp. 49-53.
06. Quote your own work
Something that is often confusing for students is self-plagiarism. Well, just because you wrote it doesn't mean you can reuse it again and again. If you wrote a paper for one class, you can’t just reprint it and submit it for another assignment - even parts of it. If you want to use something you wrote in the past, you can always ask your professor for permission. But the best way to go is to reference your old work and build upon your past findings - in fact this is often encouraged. Make sure to apply the rules for quotes, citation and paraphrasing apply when referring to your old work. Just remember that your published work is just like anyone else’s, and should be treated as such.
07. Use a plagiarism checker
When you finish writing (or even along the way), run your text through a plagiarism checker. Tools like these very clearly show you what part of your text is copied (even inadvertently), and it’s then easy to remove a problematic sentence or add a proper citation. When I was in school, we were often required to run our text through a system like Turnitin. Since then, more tools have emerged and became more accessible, so that you don’t have to be in the classroom to take advantage of them. For example, Grammarly offers a very comprehensive plagiarism checker that compares your text to pages across the web and in the academic databases of ProQuest.
08. Proofread your work
This might seem obvious, but it’s a helpful step that can be easily overlooked. I always go back (usually, multiple times) and check my work for spelling and grammar - and obviously, for citations and any quotes I may have used. Once I’ve completed a writing task, I also like to remove myself for a few hours (or days, if I have the time), and then come back with a fresh set of eyes. This helps me see clearly if I forgot to add a citation and ensure the words are otherwise uniquely mine.
09. Get a second set of eyes
If you are working on an assignment for class, don’t hesitate to ask your teacher about the reliability of certain sources or the quality of your citations. At work, bring up any concerns you have with your manager or editor, and never take a chance. It also helps to sit with a classmate or colleague and show them the original source and your text. You need to be 100% sure of your citations and the words you publish. Once it’s out there, you can’t go back - so, better be safe than sorry.
10. Try to be original
Striving to add new value with your unique thoughts is the essence of any piece of work - whether it is academic, professional or artistic - and the goal I set myself every time I type words on the screen.
On the one hand, I don’t want to just repeat what has already been said. On the other hand, I don’t want to reinvent the wheel and ignore everything else that has been written on a particular subject. I try to balance this and whenever I’m using something that already exists, I give it proper respect by attributing it to the most original source I can find. By doing this, I am sure I am avoiding plagiarism.
Jeremy Hoover, UX Writer at Wix
Left handed. I grew up in Boulder, Colorado and enjoy traveling. I like to play golf when I can.