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How to Avoid Plagiarism

In the article Why Plagiarism Persists, I discussed some of the reasons plagiarism is in the news and why it persists. Sometimes plagiarism is accidental, but sometimes it’s intentional, outright theft of other people’s ideas.

Regardless of intent, if you do commit plagiarism, chances are you’ll be caught. If you’re a student, you’ll face academic penalties, which may mean you'll receive a zero on that assignment or worse, you’ll fail the course altogether. If you’re a journalist or a fiction or non-fiction writer, you may be publicly chastised for this crime, and you could lose your job. In either case you will most likely face some form of public humiliation.

Why take the chance (unless you’re truly dishonest) when you can easily avoid it?

Three Ways to Plagiarize

If you are a student, you could commit academic plagiarism in one of these ways:

  1. You copy, word-for-word or with very slight changes, someone else’s work, and you don’t acknowledge the source. In other words, you pretend these are your ideas. 
  2. You paraphrase or summarize the work of one or many others without any acknowledgement.
  3. You do acknowledge the source for the ideas, but you fail to use quotation marks to show which words are not your own.

Preventing Plagiarism

These are the most usual kinds of academic plagiarism, and they are easy to avoid simply by stating where you got your ideas, or citing your sources. This means that you go to some trouble to state whose ideas or words you’re referring to, where you found them (book, website, journal article, etc.) and where the reader can find these sources if she wants to read them herself.

There are a number of ways to cite sources. Ask your teacher how to properly document reference material, or go to the academic writing centre at your college or university. I promise, someone there will be more than happy to guide you through this process. You can read more, including how to cite sources, at Also, Stop Thief: Writers and Plagiarism discusses plagiarism in depth, with tips for how to prevent it. 

You are also committing academic plagiarism if you purchase an essay from an essay writing service or find one online and submit it as your own. Obviously, this is a bad idea. Many teachers and university professors routinely use anti-plagiarism software to detect plagiarism in student work. Turnitin is used at many Ontario high schools, but there are several other plagiarism detection tools available, and some of them are free.

Cautionary Tales

Remember: it’s a serious offence to submit someone else’s work as your own. It’s also unethical (and usually called plagiarism) to re-submit (recycle) work you have either published or submitted before if you do not get permission to do this from your teacher, professor or publisher. Journalism and other areas of publishing are also rife with stories of plagiarism, and they all boil down to basically the same mistake: the writer failed to properly acknowledge where his ideas came from.

Don’t believe me? Here are some cautionary tales, taken from academia, journalism and publishing.

Finally, if you’re writing a novel or a non-fiction book, this article from Fiction Factor provides tips for writers about how to avoid plagiarism. Help is out there – taking the time now to properly acknowledge your sources could save you unspeakable grief and humiliation down the road.

By Carla Douglas
Image by Peter