Avoiding Plagiarism

by Dr. Michael O'Conner

Plagiarism is cheating. Deliberate plagiarism is copying the work of others and turning it as your own. Think of it as stealing the intellectual property of others, who put in plenty of hard work to create that property, so that you don't have to do as much academic work.

But there is also another kind of plagiarism--accidental or unintentional plagiarism. This happens when a writer does not intend to plagiarize, but fails to cite his or her sources completely and correctly or copies too much of a source's phrasing or structures when attempts are made to paraphrase or summarize material. Careful notetaking and a clear understanding of the rules for quoting, paraphraing, and summarizing sources can help prevent this.

We need to understand very clearly these three approaches to using outside sources:

Muriel Harris notes that paraphrases have about the same number of words as the original sources but they must be in your own words. They omit your own opinions or ideas on the subject (242). One way to help avoid plagiarism within paraphrases is to use plenty of attributive tags. An attributive tag is simply an introductory phrase, identifying the author or speaker, such as, "According to Mark Twain, . . ."

Harris goes on to say that summaries should include only main ideas, omitting all details and specifics, and are as objective as possible, excluding your own interpretations or slant on the material being summarized (241).

The real key to successfully avoiding plagiarism is to let the reader know when your words and ideas stop and when the outside expert's ideas and words begin, and vice-versa. As Harris states:

To avoid plagiarism, read over your paper and ask yourself whether your readers can properly identify which ideas and words are yours and which are from the sources you cite. If that is clear, if your have not let your paper become merely a string of quotations from sources, and if the paper predominantly reflects your words, phrases, and integration of ideas, then you are not plagiarizing. (250)

The Blair Handbook recommends the following steps to avoid plagiarism:

Place all quoted passages in quotation marks and provide source information, even if it is only one phrase.

Identify the source from which you have paraphrased or summarized ideas, just as you do when you quote directly.

Give credit for any creative ideas you borrow from an original source.  For example, if you use an author's anecdote to illustrate a point, acknowledge it.

Replace unimportant language with your own, and use different sentence structures when you paraphrase or summarize.

Acknowledge the source if you borrow any organizational structures or headings from an author.   Don't use the same subtopics, for example.

Put any words or phrases you borrow in quotation marks, especially an author's unique way of saying something.

Take a look at this original text from Carol Lea Clark's A Student's Guide to the Internet:

The World Wide Web makes world-wide publishing possible for anyone who is able to arrange disk space on a server and has some basic knowledge of how pages are created.

Is the following an acceptable paraphrase?

World-wide publishing is possible for anyone who has access to server disk-space and who has knowledge of how Web pages are made (Clark 77).

The answer is no: even though the paraphrase is cited properly, too much of both the original wording and too much of the structure of the original sentence remain. This is still plagiarism.

When using secondary sources in your essays, professors generally prefer a mixture of direct quotations, paraphrases and summary.  However, borrowing too closely from the authority or expert when you paraphrase or summarize is still considered plagiarism.

Diane Hacker, in the Bedford Handbook states:

"When you summarize or paraphrase, it is not enough to name the source; you must restate the source's meaning using your own language.  You are guilty of plagiarism if you half-copy the author's sentences--either by mixing the author's well-chosen phrases without using quotation marks or by plugging your own synonyms into the author's sentence structure" (572).

Hacker emphasizes that you should limit your use of direct quotations.  She recommends that student writers mostly summarize or paraphrase when using outside sources and authorities.

Generally, Hacker says only use direct quotations:

  • when language is especially vivid or expressive
  • when exact wording is needed for technical accuracy
  • when it is important to let the debaters of an issues explain their positions in their own words (575)

  • Practice

    Works Cited

    Fulwiler, Toby and Alan R. Hayakawa.  The Blair Handbook, Second Edition.  Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Blair Press, 1997.

    Hacker, Diana.  The Bedford Handbook, Fifth Edition.  Boston:  Bedford Books, 1998.

    Harris, Muriel. Prentice Hall Reference Guide to Grammar and Usage, Third Edition.   Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Blair Press, 1997.

    Webauthor, Michael O'Conner;

    Last modified November, 1999;
    Contact: moconner@mail.millikin.edu, or Click Here

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