How to Avoid Plagiarism | 4 Steps to a Plagiarism-Free Paper
Plagiarism means using someone else’s words or ideas without properly crediting the original author. Sometimes plagiarism involves deliberately stealing someone’s work, but often it happens accidentally, through carelessness or forgetfulness.
When you write an academic paper, you build upon the work of others and use various sources for information and evidence. To avoid plagiarism, you need to correctly incorporate these sources into your text.
Follow these four steps to ensure your paper is free from plagiarism:
- Keep track of the sources you consult in your research.
- Paraphrase or quote from your sources (and add your own ideas).
- Credit the original author in an in-text citation and in your reference list or bibliography.
- Use a plagiarism checker before you hand in your work.
Plagiarism can have serious consequences, so make sure to follow these steps for every paper you write.
Step 1: Before writing, organise your sources
Avoiding plagiarism is easier if you carefully track your sources from the very beginning of your research.
One of the most common ways that students commit plagiarism is by simply forgetting where an idea came from and unintentionally presenting it as their own. You can easily avoid this pitfall by keeping your notes organised and compiling a list of references as you go.
Clearly label which thoughts are yours and which aren’t in your notes, highlight statements that need citations, and carefully mark any text copied directly from a source with quotation marks.
Be sure to give yourself enough time to complete your assignment, paying sufficient attention to finding credible sources.
Let’s say you’re writing a paper about global warming. In your notes, you start sketching out the main points you want to make and the evidence you’ll use. You could use different colored highlights to mark claims that require sources, information taken from a specific source, and direct quotes from sources.
In the example below, yellow indicates a claim that requires a source, blue indicates information paraphrased or summarised from a source, and purple indicates a direct quotation.
Keep track of your sources
To make your life easier later, make sure to write down the full details of every source you consult. That includes not only books and journal articles but also things like websites, magazine articles, and videos. This makes it easy to go back and check where you found a phrase, fact, or idea that you want to use in your paper.
Scribbr’s Citation Generator allows you to start building and managing your reference list or bibliography as you go, saving time later. When you’re ready to submit, simply download your reference list!
Make sure your sources are credible
It’s important to make sure your sources are credible. A credible source is free from bias and backed up with evidence. It is written by a trustworthy author or organisation and avoids vague terms, buzzwords, or writing that is too emotive or subjective.
Academic journals and books released by academic publishers are often a good place to start. Google Scholar is also a useful resource for research. Exercise the most caution with web sources, which are the most difficult to evaluate for credibility.
Step 2: Quote and paraphrase correctly
If you want to share an idea or a piece of information from a source, you must either paraphrase or quote the original text, and you should always cite the source. Make sure your argument shines through by adding your own ideas, interpretations, and conclusions.
In general, paraphrasing is better than quoting, especially for longer passages. It shows that you have fully understood the meaning of the original text and ensures that your own voice is dominant in your paper.
Avoiding plagiarism when quoting
Quoting means copying a piece of text word for word. The copied text must be introduced by your own words, enclosed in quotation marks, and correctly attributed to the original author.
In general, quote sparingly. Quotes are appropriate when:
- You are using an exact definition, introduced by the original author
- It is impossible for you to rephrase the original text without losing its meaning
- You want to maintain the authority and style of the author’s words
Long quotations should be formatted as block quotes. But for longer blocks of text, it’s usually better to paraphrase instead.
Avoiding plagiarism when paraphrasing
Paraphrasing means using your own words to explain something from a source.
Paraphrasing does not mean just switching out a few words from a copied-and-pasted text. To paraphrase properly, you should rewrite the author’s point to show that you have fully understood it.
Step 3: Cite your sources correctly
Each citation must correspond to a full reference in the reference list or bibliography at the end of your paper. This helps your readers locate the source for themselves if they would like to learn more.
There are many different citation styles, and each one has its own rules. A few of the most common styles are Harvard, APA, and Vancouver. Your instructor may assign a particular style for you to use, or you may sometimes be able to choose yourself. The most important thing is to apply one style consistently throughout the text.
The examples below follow APA Style.
Citing a single source
|In-text citation||The novel’s central theme is voiced by Cersei Lannister: ‘When you play the game of thrones you win or you die. There is no middle ground’ (Martin, 2002, p. 403).|
|Reference list||Martin, G. R. R. (2002). A game of thrones (reprint ed.). Bantam.|
Citing multiple sources
If you quote multiple sources in one sentence, make sure to cite them separately so that it’s clear which material came from which source.
|In-text citation||Martin’s narrative can be read as a classic ‘zero-sum game’ (Morgenstern and von Neumann, 1980, p. 98), where players in the ‘game of thrones’ either ‘win or die’ (Martin, 2002, p. 403), with no other outcomes possible.|
|Reference list||Martin, G. R. R. (2002). A game of thrones (reprint ed.). Bantam.Morgenstern, O., & von Neumann, J. (1980). Theory of games and economic behavior (3rd ed.). Princeton University Press.|
To create correctly formatted source references, you can use our free citation generator.
Step 4: Check your work
Before submitting your paper, check it carefully for errors that might constitute accidental plagiarism. Common mistakes include:
- Forgotten or misplaced citations
- Missing quotation marks
- Paraphrased material that’s too similar to the original text
- Sources missing from the reference list
Run it through a plagiarism checker
Most universities use plagiarism checkers to detect potential plagiarism. Plagiarism checkers work by scanning your document, comparing it to a database of webpages and publications, and highlighting passages that it determines are similar to other texts.
Consider using a plagiarism checker yourself before submitting your work. This allows you to identify any parts where you’ve forgotten a citation, left out quotation marks, or included a paraphrase that’s too close to the original text. Then you can follow the steps above to easily fix any instances of potential plagiarism.
There are differences in accuracy and safety between plagiarism checkers. To help students choose, we conducted in-depth research comparing the performance of nine checkers to see which performed best.
Double-check your citations
If you’re citing in APA Style, consider using Scribbr’s Citation Checker, a unique tool that scans your citations for errors. It can detect inconsistencies between your in-text citations and your reference list, as well as making sure your citations are flawlessly formatted.
Plagiarism prevention checklist
Use this checklist to make sure your writing is free from plagiarism.
Free lecture slides
Are you a teacher or professor who would like to educate your students about plagiarism? You can download our free lecture slides, available for Google Slides and Microsoft PowerPoint.
Frequently asked questions about plagiarism
- How can I avoid plagiarism?
To avoid plagiarism, always include a reference when you use words, ideas or information from a source. This shows that you are not trying to pass the work of others off as your own.
- Can plagiarism be accidental?
Accidental plagiarism is one of the most common types of plagiarism. Perhaps you forgot to cite a source, or paraphrased something a bit too closely. Maybe you can’t remember where you got an idea from and aren’t totally sure if it’s original or not.
These all count as plagiarism, even though you didn’t do it on purpose. When in doubt, make sure you’re referencing your sources. Also consider running your work through a plagiarism checker tool prior to submission. These tools work by using advanced database software to scan for matches between your text and existing texts.
- How can I summarise a source without plagiarising?
- How is plagiarism detected?
Plagiarism can be detected by your professor or readers if the tone, formatting, or style of your text is different in different parts of your paper, or if they’re familiar with the plagiarised source.
Many universities also use plagiarism detection software like Turnitin’s, which compares your text to a large database of other sources, flagging any similarities that come up.
It can be easier than you think to commit plagiarism by accident. Consider using a plagiarism checker prior to submitting your essay to ensure you haven’t missed any citations.
- What are some examples of plagiarism?
Some examples of plagiarism include:
- Copying and pasting a Wikipedia article into the body of an assignment
- Quoting a source without including a citation
- Not paraphrasing a source properly (e.g. maintaining wording too close to the original)
- Forgetting to cite the source of an idea