How to avoid plagiarism

Cartoon by Pirillo & Fitz

Plagiarism. It’s a concept that puts sour looks on teachers’ faces and sends shudders down students’ spines. When you sit down to write that essay, however, you don’t have to be afraid of unintentionally committing plagiarism. Simply take the time to understand exactly what plagiarism is and the best methods for avoiding it. If you follow these easy tips, you can make sure that you create work that doesn’t inadvertently steal ideas or words.

Get Acquainted with What Plagiarism Means

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The Instrument of Student Judicial Governance for The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill defines plagiarism as “deliberate or reckless representation of another’s words, thoughts, or ideas as one’s own without attribution.” Notice the word “reckless” there. Even if you are not intentionally taking another person’s work and using it as your own, you may end up doing it merely because of carelessness. Watch out for these forms of plagiarism:

  • Direct plagiarism – Taking another person’s ideas word for word without giving proper citation.
  • Self-plagiarism – Submitting your own previous work as part of a current assignment without permission.
  • Mosaic plagiarism – Quoting another’s work without quotation marks. This can also refer to replacing words in another’s work with synonyms while maintaining the same overall structure and meaning.
  • Accidental plagiarism – Forgetting to cite sources, misquoting sources, or paraphrasing sources without giving credit where credit is due.

Create a Thorough Outline

An essay should not be just a collection of other people’s research; it should include your own ideas as well. Carefully outline your paper before you start writing. Make it clear in your outline which ideas come from you and which come from outside sources. To make this easy, you can assign an abbreviated name to each of your sources and jot that down next to the ideas you pull from each one. This will save you from having to sort through all your information later.

Even before you start your outline, when you are still in the note-taking phase, diligently keep track of where your ideas come from. suggests that you color code your notes and number your note pages so your information doesn’t become jumbled.

Cite Your Sources

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Citing your sources might seem like a no-brainer, but properly citing your sources is another story altogether. Double-check your bibliography to make sure that you include all the needed information in the correct order. Some word processing programs will automatically generate a bibliography for you, but that still requires that you input the right information with a fastidious eye.

Keep in mind, too, that there are different types of citation. For example, MLA and APA citation styles are different.

Scrutinize Your Sources

What are your source’s sources? To avoid plagiarism and keep your essay on the straight and narrow, rely only on reputable sources. Here are a few things to look for when you’re deciding if a source is worth your time:

  • Is the author an authoritative voice in his or her field?
  • What organization is the author affiliated with?
  • Is the information up to date?
  • Do you notice a lot of technical errors in the writing?

If you have any qualms about the integrity of a source, take your research elsewhere.

Don’t Write Blind

If you’re in a hurry, you may start “writing blind” — that is, you may start typing out information using words or phrases that belong to someone else without even realizing what you are doing. Writing blind can also lead you to pen ambiguous statements. If you are melding your ideas with another person’s ideas, make sure that it is clear where each idea comes from.

The best way to avoid writing blind is to let your essay rest for a while after you finish it. That way, you can take a look at it again later and compare it with your notes, helping you make sure that your paper is plagiarism-free.

Plagiarism is serious business. Do you have any tips or tricks that you use to ensure the integrity of your writing?

Cartoon by Pirillo & Fitz, found at

1. Understand the context

  • Do not copy–paste the text verbatim from the reference paper. Instead, restate the idea in your own words.
  • Understand the idea(s) of the reference source well in order to paraphrase correctly.
  • Examples on good paraphrasing can be found here (

3. Identify what does and does not need to be cited

  • Any words or ideas that are not your own but taken from another paper need to be cited.
  • Cite Your Own Material—If you are using content from your previous paper, you must cite yourself. Using material you have published before without citation is called self-plagiarism.
  • The scientific evidence you gathered after performing your tests should not be cited.
  • Facts or common knowledge need not be cited. If unsure, include a reference.
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4. Manage your citations

  • Maintain records of the sources you refer to. Use citation software like EndNote or Reference Manager to manage the citations used for the paper
  • Use multiple references for the background information/literature survey. For example, rather than referencing a review, the individual papers should be referred to and cited.

Avoiding plagiarism is easy! When you use an idea, some words or a whole paragraph from someone else you must credit the original author.

Take the following three steps to avoid all plagiarism in your paper:

  1. Paraphrase or quote the original text
  2. Credit the original author in the text and reference list
  3. Use a plagiarism checker

Paraphrase or quote to avoid plagiarism

To share the ideas of others, you must either paraphrase or quote the original text. In order to avoid plagiarism you must also add a citation to the quoted or paraphrased section. More about that later in the article.


Paraphrasing means using your own words to explain or tell something. The example below shows a paraphrased piece of text. For better understanding, read the original paragraph.

More than 150 Russian diplomats were expelled from over two dozen nations following the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei V. Skripal in early March 2018. Skripal and his daughter both survived the toxic nerve-agent attack that sparked a confrontation between Russia and the West (Schwirtz and Barry, 2018, para. 3).

  • The text has been rewritten in your own words as much as possible
  • The correct citation is included


Quoting means literally copying a piece of text instead of rewording it. The example below shows an example.

Every description of the scene of an event or of the position of an object in space is based on the specification of the point on a rigid body (body of reference) with which that event or object coincides (Einstein, 1920, pp. 5–6).

  • The text is copied word-for-word from the original
  • Quotation marks are used
  • The correct citation is included
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Paraphrasing vs. quoting

In general, paraphrasing is better than quoting as it shows the reader that you truly understand the original source. It also provides you with the opportunity to exclude irrelevant information. You should only use quotes when:

  • You are using an exact definition introduced by the original author
  • It is impossible for you to rephrase the original piece without losing its meaning
  • You want to maintain the authority of the author’s words

Every time you use someone else’s ideas or words you must include both an in-text citation (or footnote citation) and a full-length reference in the reference list at the end of the paper to avoid plagiarism.

Example or in-text citation (in APA style):

Research shows that there is a great need for … (Reynolds & Thomas, 2014)

Example of reference list entry (in APA style):

Reynolds, R.S., & Thomas, A.H. (1998). Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors (3th ed.). New York, NY: Free Press

These citations help the readers of your paper identify the original author(s) and locate the original source by providing helpful information, such as a book title, a website URL or a publisher name. To help you correctly cite sources, you can use citation generators such as the free APA Citation Generator.

The formatting of your in-text citations and reference list will depend on the citation style you use – for example, APA style, MLA or Chicago. If you’re not sure which style to use, you can use our guide to citation styles.

Use a plagiarism checker to avoid plagiarism

Most universities use plagiarism checkers to detect plagiarism in student’ papers. You can use one as well before you submit your paper to your supervisor. This is one of the best ways to avoid plagiarism.

Plagiarism technology scans your document and highlights the passages of text that are detected as potential instances of plagiarism.

You can use all kinds of of plagiarism checkers, but there are clear differences in accuracy and safety. Therefore we’ve created this list of best plagiarism checkers for students.

Frequently asked questions about avoiding plagiarism

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