10 Tips for Avoiding Plagiarism
Plagiarism is one of the most serious offenses in college, with penalties from failing the assignment to being expelled from college. Here are tips for students to avoid plagiarism in their writing.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
When you use ideas, facts, and opinions that are not your own -- even when you don't use the author's exact words -- you must give appropriate credit to the author as you incorporate his or her ideas into your paper. If you don't do so, you're committing plagiarism, one of the most serious offenses in academe. Virtually every school has an honor code that prohibits plagiarism, and consequences range from failing the assignment or class in which the plagiarism occurred to being expelled from your college.
Plagiarism sometimes results from simple carelessness -- overlooking instances in which you should credit the originator of an idea, quote, or phrase that's not yours, for example. More insidious -- and more tempting to some students -- is downloading and/or purchasing material you didn't write and trying to pass it off as your own. Unscrupulous students will sometimes paste whole chunks of material into a paper and deliberately fail to credit the source. Or they will submit an entire paper downloaded or purchased from one of the plethora of term-paper mills on the Internet. Plagiarism is not only cheating but is probably the most heinous kind of cheating in the academic world.
If you fall into the unscrupulous category, you're probably not reading this article unless you're looking for ideas to get away with it. If that's you, only one piece of advice applies: Don't plagiarize because you will probably get caught. Professors can easily recognize writing that does not read like that of their students. They are also increasingly using sophisticated software and Websites that can detect plagiarism. Penalties for plagiarism, as mentioned, are severe. If you are ever tempted because it's the 11th hour and you have a paper due, talk to your professor immediately because there is always a better way to deal with your crisis. You may end up having to take a grading penalty for a late paper, but whatever consequence you suffer will be better than the consequence for plagiarizing.
The more likely readers of this article are those worried about inadvertently plagiarizing. Here are tips to help you avoid doing so:
1. Plan your writing assignments and avoid procrastination. Students who are fall into plagiarism traps are usually those who have procrastinated and then find themselves in a bind right before the paper is due. Even if you're not tempted to deliberately pass off someone else's work as your own, you may get careless about citing the work of others at crunch time. Consult these articles to learn more about avoiding procrastination, managing your time, and planning your written assignments:
- A Five-Component Plan for Writing a Research Paper
- Strategies for Planning Writing Assignments
- A Student's Guide to Making the Most of Your Time
- Time Management Do's and Dont's: Conquering the Time-Management Monster
- 10 Tips for Time Management
2. Know what plagiarism is. A good starting point is to test your knowledge of plagiarism with this brief plagiarism quiz. In essence, you must credit any source that you quote directly. You must place the souce's words in quotation marks and insert a citation in the style your professor requires. You must also credit any source you paraphrase. You need not put these words in quotation marks as long as you are not using the exact words the source used, but you must cite the source, again using your professor's preferred style.
3. Know your professor's and your school's policies on plagiarism and citing sources. Being aware of just how serious this offense is and what the specific consequences are in your class and school will help keep you on your toes. Knowing the correct citation format (including where the citation needs to be placed) is important is critical because failing to properly cite places you on the fringes of plagiarism.
4. Cite Internet sources, too. Just because something is freely available on the Internet doesn't mean that it doesn't need to be cited. Internet sources must be cited, too, including materials from online discussion groups and e-mails. Most citation styles for Internet sources are quite specific and a bit different from the citation style for other sources, so be sure you know the correct style. Most citation styles for Internet sources also require you to supply the date you retrieved the material, so if you are printing out material from the Internet, set your browser preferences to include the date you are printing the material out. Beware of copying material from the Internet and pasting it into your paper. Taking notes on the material or printing it out (and then typing it into your paper) will increase the likelihood that won't forget to credit it properly.
5. Take good notes and/or print out/photocopy all source information. If you are taking notes from source materials, be sure to copy quotes accurately and don't lose track of which words are direct quotes and which are paraphrases. It helps to make a visual distinction in your notes -- such as with colored pens or highlighters -- between your own words and words of others that need to be cited. Carefully note all the information you'll need for your citation, such as name of the work, author, publisher, city and date of publication, and page numbers. Many students print out source material from online library databases and make photocopies of pages from source materials such as books and periodicals. Be sure when doing so to include all the accompanying bibliographic information. For a book, the copyright page usually has the citation information you need. For a periodical, look for a page near the beginning of the periodical that includes the date, volume number and issue number. It's also important to ensure that photocopies or printouts contain the page numbers from the source material.
6. If you question whether and how a source needs to be cited, ask your professor. Information that is "common knowledge" is not required to be cited, but if you are writing about a discipline with which you are not familiar, you may not have a good grasp of which information is "common knowledge" within that field. It's a good idea, before asking your professor, to be sure to first consult your syllabus and other course materials to ensure the answer isn't there.
7. When in doubt, cite. If you're unsure whether a piece of information needs to be cited and cannot get an answer, cite it. It's better to over-cite than under-cite.
8. Begin constructing your bibliography early. As soon as you begin gathering source materials, you can start your bibliography for your paper. If you end up not using some of the listed sources, you can always delete them when you finalize your paper. Starting early will alert you to any missing bibliographic information you need to track down. It will also help ensure your bibliography is complete. As part of your final editing and proofreading, cross-check to be sure that every source you've cited in your paper is listed in the bibliography, and every source listed in the bibliography is cited in your paper.
9. Don't succumb to the argument that "everyone's doing it." Unfortunately, plagiarism and other forms of cheating are widespread or college campuses. But it's just not worth the risk even if others seem to be getting away with it.
10. Consult these sites for more information about avoiding plagiarism:
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for EmpoweringSites.com, including MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She curates, crafts, and delivers compelling content online, in print, on stage, and in the classroom. Visit her personal Website KatharineHansenPhD.com or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)astoriedcareer.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.