Avoiding Plagiarism

by Sharon Williams

Writers sometimes plagiarize ideas from outside sources without realizing that they are doing so. Put simply, you plagiarize if you present other writers' words and ideas as your own. You do not plagiarize if you "provide citations for all direct quotations and paraphrases, for borrowed ideas, and for facts that do not belong to general knowledge" (Crews and VanSant 407).

General advice for using sources:

The best way to avoid plagiarism is to keep control of your argument. You should include ideas from other sources only when those ideas add weight to your argument. Keep the following suggestions in mind when you are using material from other sources:

At all times, stay in control of your argument and let your own voice speak for you.

A common pitfall: the notetaking stage

Plagiarism often starts with the notetaking stage of the research process. If possible, have a clear question in mind before heading off to the library so you will not waste time taking extraneous notes. When taking notes, be sure to distinguish between paraphrases and direct quotations. When you are copying a direct quotation, be extremely precise. Note all the information you will need for the citation and copy the quotation exactly as it appears. Some writers use only direct quotations while notetaking so there is no confusion as to whether a note is a paraphrase or a direct quotation. Other writers color-code notes: one color for paraphrases, another for quotations. To ensure that you are not copying wording or sentence structure when paraphrasing, you might find it helpful to put the source material aside. In summary, be consistent and conscious of whatever notetaking method you decide on.


Sometimes writers do not recognize when their use of other writers' ideas constitutes plagiarism. Versions of the following source can help you see the difference between acceptable paraphrasing and plagiarism (taken from The Bedford Handbook for Writers 508).

Original source #1

If the existence of a signing ape was unsettling for linguists, it was also startling news for animal behaviorists (Davis 26).

Original Source #2 (taken from The Random House Handbook, 4th edition 405-6)

The joker in the European pack was Italy. For a time, hopes were entertained of her as a force against Germany, but these disappeared under Mussolini. In 1935 Italy made a belated attempt to participate in the scramble for Africa by invading Ethiopia. It was clearly a breach of the covenant of the League of Nations for one of its members to attack another. France and Great Britain, the Mediterranean powers, and the African powers were bound to take the lead against Italy at the league. But they did so feebly and half-heartedly because they did not want to alienate a possible ally against Germany. The result was the worst possible: the league failed to check aggression, Ethiopia lost her independence, and Italy was alientated after all ( J. M. Roberts, History of the World. New York: Knopf, 1976, p. 845).


A final note:

Learning how to use the ideas of others to add weight to your ideas involves effort and a commitment to academic honesty. It is not always clear exactly when or how to use sources, and sometimes you will need advice. Since your professors are most familiar with the expectations of their disciplines, they are the best people to ask. You can also talk with a tutor at the Writing Center or refer to one of the many handbooks of English. The Writing Center has numerous handbooks available for your use.

*Works cited:

Crews, Frederick and Ann Jessie VanSant. The Random House Handbook, 4th edition. New York: Random House, 1984.

Fowler, H. Ramsey and Jane Aaron. The Little, Brown Handbook. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1989.

Hacker, Diana. The Bedford Handbook for Writers. Boston: St. Martin's Press, 1991.

*Recommended reading:

Hacker, Diana. A Pocket Style Manual. New York: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Trimmer, Joseph. A Guide to MLA Documentation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

Gosselink, Karin, '94. "Using Sources."