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How To Avoid Plagiarism And Prove Your Research & Writing Are Topnotch

You have a term paper due in the morning and you just need a few more paragraphs to finally finish it and go to bed. You’re tired. You’re frustrated. You can’t think of anything else to say about the science behind bioaccumulation. So, what do you do? Do you look it up in the dictionary and decide to just copy and paste a paragraph or two of the Homework Helper, change a couple of words, and call it a night?

It’s a relatable situation—and a tempting solution in the moment.

But wait! Your whole academic career is at stake here! What you were just about to do is an incredibly serious mistake that could cost you everything. You might be thinking “Oh, come on! It’s just a few words. What’s the big deal?” Well, stealing someone else’s words or ideas is actually, in fact, a super big deal. A bigger deal than you might even realize. You see, this act of intellectual theft is called plagiarism, and it is taken very seriously. How seriously? Well, we will get to that shortly, but first let’s learn more about what plagiarism actually is.

What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism is “an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author.”

In other words, plagiarism is taking someone else’s work and passing it off as your own without crediting the person you took it from. While the word plagiarism is most often used to refer to writing, it can also refer to using someone else’s photos, video, music, and other forms of media. To give one summation, the University of Oxford states that “All published and unpublished material, whether in manuscript, printed or electronic form” falls under the definition of plagiarism. (Note: while this article links to sources, as is widely customary in popular writing, it is important to know that the specific guidelines for citation vary depending on the medium.) The verb form of plagiarism is plagiarize and a person who plagiarizes something is called a plagiarist.

An obvious example of plagiarism would be if you copied a chapter of author J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1954) and claimed it was a fantasy short story that you wrote. It would also be considered plagiarism to perform one of Beethoven’s sonatas while crediting yourself as the original composer. However, claiming someone’s work as your own without changing anything isn’t the only form of plagiarism.

Rather than plagiarize, let memorable works inspire you instead, such as the way works of literature inspired these famous songs.

What are the different types of plagiarism?

Depending on the workplace, college, or other organization, the exact rules for what is and isn’t plagiarism may be different. In general, you don’t have to worry about plagiarism when you are stating common knowledge (facts your intended audience is likely to know), such as A triceratops is a dinosaur. You also do not need to worry about plagiarism if you are stating your own opinions, your own arguments, or are making a creative work that only includes all of your own original ideas and creations. For example, the statement I believe “The Raven” is Edgar Allen Poe’s best work because it clearly demonstrates his talent as an American Gothic writer is an opinion and doesn’t need to have a citation.

In most cases, plagiarism isn’t just limited to using someone else’s exact words as your own. Generally speaking, plagiarism is often separated into several different categories. The exact names of each of these types often change, but most of them are specifically mentioned in a university’s rules on academic dishonesty, such as those found at Northern Illinois University or the University of Oxford, or in articles about the topic of plagiarism in higher education.

Verbatim or direct plagiarism

This kind of plagiarism is the most obvious and is what most people probably think of when they hear the word plagiarism. This form of plagiarism involves simply “copy and pasting” someone’s exact words without changing a single thing. Here is an example of verbatim (“word for word”) plagiarism:

 

  • Original text: Tigers are solitary animals. They largely keep to themselves until the mating season. They are not the group hunters that lions are known to be.
  • Plagiarized text: Tigers are solitary animals. They largely keep to themselves until the mating season. They are not the group hunters that lions are known to be.

Paraphrasing plagiarism

This kind of plagiarism occurs when a person paraphrases a source or multiple sources without crediting the original author(s). Remember, facts must be attributed to a source if a writer personally didn’t discover them and the facts are not considered common knowledge. So, even when paraphrasing it is important to use phrasing such as “according to” or “as said by” to clarify what information is not an original thought.

In paraphrasing plagiarism, the wording or word order of the original source is changed—but the plagiarized text may retain too many similarities to the original. Additionally, the plagiarist is still trying to pass off someone else’s ideas or research as their own. This form of plagiarism is especially common and some people do it without actually intending to commit plagiarism. Especially when a student first begins to engage in more intensive writing, they may be overwhelmed by the complexity of recognizing that all unoriginal research must be cited. Here is a simple example of plagiarism through paraphrasing:

 

  • Original text: Tigers are solitary animals. They largely keep to themselves until the mating season. They are not the group hunters that lions are known to be.
  • Plagiarized text: Tigers usually live alone. Unless it is the mating season, they mostly keep to themselves. Unlike lions, they are not known to be group hunters.

As you can see, in this particular case, the writer both retains much of the general structure and wording of the original text but does not offer a significant enough revision. Crucially, the writer fails to cite the source of this text at all, and so this is considered plagiarism.

Patchwork or mosaic plagiarism

This type of plagiarism is similar to paraphrasing. Patchwork or mosaic plagiarism involves interweaving paraphrasing of sources with some of the author’s own ideas or arguments. Because the stolen and original material is mixed together, it can be more difficult for a reader to recognize which words or ideas have been copied from sources. For example, consider a research team that observes real-life tiger behavior. The background information included in its report about tiger behavior should be cited even if the research gathered via tiger observation is original. Here is a simple example of this kind of plagiarism:

 

  • Original text: Tigers are solitary animals. They largely keep to themselves until the mating season. They are not the group hunters that lions are known to be.
  • Plagiarized text: Tigers are different from lions in many ways. Unlike lions, tigers mostly live solitary lives. Tigers and lions also live in different habitats and hunt different prey. This may explain why tigers do not hunt or live large groups like lions are known to do. Our research team observed solitary behavior by all tigers during the summer we visited the preserve.

The writer’s mistake in this instance is not citing any of the material gathered through research of others’ work.

Do you know the difference between primary and secondary sources? Learn more about the importance of each kind of source for the next time you cite them.

Collusion or sharing

This kind of plagiarism involves two or more people working together to pass off one person’s work as another’s, hence the implication of collusion (“a secret agreement, especially for fraudulent or treacherous purposes”). This type of plagiarism can be common in schools or colleges, where students will share essays or complete each other’s assignments. Even though a person may have another’s consent to use their work, it is still considered plagiarism because a person is trying to deceive someone (their teacher or professor) by claiming another’s work as one’s own.

Paid or hired plagiarism

Similar to collusion, paid plagiarism involves paying someone to create something and then passing it off as one’s own work. Hired plagiarism can involve paying another student for their essay or hiring a freelance writer to complete a report.

Improper citation and accidental plagiarism

Depending on the organization, poor or incorrect citations may be treated the same as other types of plagiarism. Generally speaking, this is more likely to be the case when it involves major errors such as unattributed quotations or an absence of a bibliography rather than a minor misspelling of a source’s name or a missing colon. Still, laziness or apathy when sourcing is often an indication that a person is unconcerned with properly crediting their sources and thus is often considered just as serious a breach of ethics or academic integrity as other types of plagiarism.

Can you plagiarize yourself?

There is a term for the act of plagiarizing yourself: self-plagiarism. In academic settings, self-plagiarism typically involves using the same essay or assignment in multiple classes. Unlike all other forms of plagiarism, this type may be rarely permitted in schools or colleges if a student asks for permission from their instructor first. Of course, not asking first is never a good idea!

Outside of schools, self-plagiarism may take the form of a researcher using the same exact wording and data in multiple papers or citing their own previous work. In academia and scientific research, it is important to cite work done by others so you can use their research to strengthen your own ideas or arguments by showing that your original ideas are based on facts and proper evidence. Self-plagiarizing creates the illusion of supporting evidence when an author uses their (and only their) own previous work to support their arguments or hypotheses.

Self-plagiarism also often involves copyright and intellectual property law (we’ll get to these more later). The simple explanation is that a creator often surrenders the rights to their work to a newspaper, record company, or publishing house. If that person then tries to use that same content again elsewhere, they are very likely to face a lawsuit. As the Supreme Court case of Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc demonstrates, even if the person is the original creator, they still face the possibility of being accused of plagiarism if using content they don’t control the legal rights to.

What are the consequences of plagiarism?

Given all that has been said, you are probably asking yourself “Is plagiarism a crime?” Generally speaking, the act of plagiarism itself is not illegal as there is no criminal or civil law against it in most places. However, the consequences for committing plagiarism can be serious. If caught committing plagiarism, a student is very likely to be expelled from school and a person is likely to be fired and/or ostracized from their professional community.

An infamous example of this occurred in the 2003 New York Times plagiarism scandal involving former journalist Jayson Blair. It was discovered that Blair made up many of the facts in his stories and repeatedly plagiarized other newspapers. Blair resigned from the newspaper and would never work in journalism again. However, Blair’s actions damaged the credibility of the paper to the extent that several longtime editors resigned soon after to attempt to lessen the damage to the Times’s reputation. The moral of the story: do not commit plagiarism!   

In the United States and elsewhere, most colleges consider plagiarism to be completely and unquestionably unacceptable. It is treated as a serious violation of academic integrity and the punishment for even the first incidence of plagiarism is often an immediate failure of a class, lengthy suspension, or even outright expulsion.

Professionally, a person who commits plagiarism often violates what are known as copyright and intellectual property laws and will face often incredibly expensive lawsuits.

What is protected by copyright?

Very briefly, the term intellectual property (often shortened to “IP”) refers to works of creativity and includes all kinds of creative things such as books, music, film, video games, logos, symbols, and so on. As stated by the World Intellectual Property Organization, intellectual property is protected by the law through things like patents, trademarks, and copyright. Like any other property, IP can be owned by a person or company and the owner has the right to make money off of it.

Copyright is the legally protected right to original ownership, according to the United States Copyright Office. As outlined in a guide to copyright by Cornell University, if someone has the copyrights to something, they (and only they) are legally allowed to make copies of it, make other works based on it, distribute copies of it, publicly perform it, or publicly display it. Copyright law gets extremely complex, but you can think of a copyright as the “right” to decide who gets to “copy” something.

In practice, this means that an original creator is usually the only person who can use their creation unless they give permission to someone (such as through contracts or licensing agreements) or sell the copyright to someone else. For example, director George Lucas and his company Lucasfilm owned the copyrights (over 3,000 of them, in fact) to Star Wars after Lucas created the movie franchise in the 1970s. That meant that only George Lucas, Lucasfilm, and anyone Lucasfilm gave permission to (likely after receiving payment) could lawfully create things that used Star Wars or any of its characters. However, the Walt Disney Company would buy Lucasfilm, and thus gain control of its copyrights, in 2012. This means that now Disney (as the owner of Lucasfilm) has the legal right to say who can and cannot create something that uses Star Wars or any of its characters. This means that even George Lucas would now need Disney’s permission to make a Star Wars film, despite the fact that he was the original creator.

Learn more about how copyright works by examining the symbols for copyright, trademark, and more.

Best practices to avoid plagiarism

If you want to avoid plagiarism, it is important to learn the proper way to give credit to sources and to use citations. Listed below are the three major styles that are often consulted when making citations and generally what topics they are used for:

 

  • APA style (American Psychological Association): business writing and the sciences
  • MLA style (Modern Language Association): the humanities
  • Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago style): history, theology, religious studies, the humanities, and some sciences

Usually, an instructor or your boss will make it clear which style you are expected to use. You can find many reference books and online resources that explain how to use each of these styles correctly.

Some general advice 

While each style guide has different rules for things such as footnotes and bibliographies, there is some general advice that is common among them—and it boils down to, well, good research, critical thinking, and writing.

 

  1. Keep good, organized notes that separate your own ideas, statements, and arguments from your sources. By doing this, you will be able to remember to cite the information later, and it will be much easier to find the original source again if you need it.
  2. Use direct quotes only when you really need to. Using an author’s exact words is best if they make a very important point or use especially interesting or persuasive language. Needless to say, exact quotes must be thoroughly and properly cited within the text and in footnotes.
  3. Rather than paraphrase, it is better to summarize an author’s general point or argument using your own words. Even when doing so, you must note where the information you used came from by properly citing and crediting the source.
  4. In general, citing and crediting is not necessary if you are stating common knowledge, mentioning a work or author briefly in passing, or collectively referencing a person’s entire career, philosophy, or body of work.

Why cite sources and information

Cite, cite, cite! While some writers may fear that citing sources is a sign of weakness because the ideas aren’t original, citing is a sign of effective, strong writing—and it shows that a writer is using research to support arguments they are making or information they are synthesizing.

Citing sources is a fantastic habit to get into. Taking the time to properly and clearly cite all of your sources will earn you the love and respect of your teachers, employees, and editors. Properly citing sources is good because:

 

  1. It helps avoid plagiarism by making it clear what is not your own words or research.
  2. It shows you care enough about your work to follow basic style guidelines.
  3. It shows that you actually did research, so your writing is more likely to be accurate.
  4. It shows you know how to use reference materials and analyze and synthesize sources for useful or supportive information.
  5. It allows another person to use those same resources to review your work so they can both ensure its accuracy and that you didn’t simply copy a source verbatim.

How to cite sources and information

So, how do you actually cite something when you want to reference it in your work? Well, that depends a lot on what exactly your source is and how you intend to cite it. For now, let’s assume you want to cite our great article on the difference between the words college and university. Let’s make good citations of this article using all three major styles (APA, Chicago, and MLA).

APA Style  

Using APA Style, we can make both an in-text and reference list citation of our source.

 

  • Reference list citation:

    Thesaurus.com. (n.d.) “College” vs. “University”: Are They Synonyms? Retrieved June 7, 2021 from https://www.thesaurus.com/e/ways-to-say/college-vs-university/

  • In-text citation:
    Parenthetical: (Thesaurus.com, n.d.)
    Narrative: Thesaurus.com (n.d.)

Chicago Style

With Chicago Style, we can (and must) cite our source using notes and in the bibliography.

 

  • Notes citation:

    ““College” vs. “University:” Are They Synonyms?” Thesaurus.com, accessed June 7, 2021, https://www.thesaurus.com/e/ways-to-say/college-vs-university/

  • Bibliography citation:

    Thesaurus.com. ““College” vs. “University:” Are They Synonyms?” Accessed June 7, 2021. https://www.thesaurus.com/e/ways-to-say/college-vs-university/

MLA Style

MLA Style also uses both in-text citations and citations in a Works Cited List.

 

  • Works cited list citation:

    “College” vs. “University:” Are They Synonyms?” Thesaurus.com,  https://www.thesaurus.com/e/ways-to-say/college-vs-university/ Accessed 7 June 2021

  • In-text citation:
    (““College” vs. “University””)

As you can see, each style guide handles citations differently. These citations work for an article on a website, but there are tons of other sources of information that can be cited. For more information on citing specific sources, you should consult the particular style guide of the citation style you are using.

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