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Avoiding Plagiarism

Avoiding Plagiarism

Author: Sophia Tutorial

Examine how plagiarism occurs and how it can be avoided.

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what's covered
In this lesson, you will learn what plagiarism is, how it happens, and what you can do to avoid it. Specifically, this lesson will focus on:
  1. When and Why to Cite Sources
  2. How Plagiarism Occurs
  3. Preventing Plagiarism

1. When and Why to Cite Sources

To an inexperienced writer, citing and documenting sources may seem like busywork; however, complete and accurate citing and documenting of all external sources helps writers achieve three very important goals:

1. It enhances your credibility as a writer. By carefully and accurately citing your external sources in the text and by documenting them at the end of your paper, you show your readers that you are serious about your subject, your research, and the argument which you are making in your paper. You demonstrate that you have studied your subject in sufficient depth by reading credible and authoritative sources.

2. It helps you to avoid plagiarism. Plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s ideas or writing off as your own. It is a serious offense that can damage the reputation of a writer forever and lead to very serious consequences if committed in an academic or professional setting.

3. It helps you demonstrate to your readers that you are an active participant in the community of readers, writers, researchers, and learners. It shows that you are aware of the conversations that are going on among writers and researchers in your field and that you are willing to enter those conversations by researching and writing about the subjects that interest you.

So when should you cite sources?

The brief answer to this question is “always.” Every time you use someone else’s ideas, arguments, opinions, or data, you need to carefully acknowledge their author and source.

Keep in mind that you are not just borrowing others’ words when you use sources in your writing; you are borrowing ideas, too. Therefore, even if you are not directly quoting the source, but paraphrasing or summarizing it, you still need to cite it both in the text and at the end of the paper in a list of references.

The only exception is when you are dealing with what is known as “common knowledge.” Common knowledge consists of facts that are so widely known that they do not require a source reference.


If you say in your writing that the Earth rotates around the Sun or that Ronald Reagan was a U.S. President, you do not need to cite the sources of this common knowledge formally.

term to know
Presenting someone else's ideas or writing as your own, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

2. How Plagiarism Occurs

Outright, intentional plagiarism is always a serious offense, but plagiarism can be unintentional as well.


Some students plagiarize on purpose by simply lifting whole paragraphs from their sources and hoping that it looks like their own work. Additionally, with the advent of the Internet, it has become relatively easy to download complete papers. Various people and organizations, sometimes masquerading as “writing consultants,” promise students that they will write a paper on any subject and at any level of complexity for a hefty fee. Clearly, the use of such services by student writers is dishonest and dishonorable.

Other students plagiarize “accidentally"— that is, they fail to cite information they took from a source because they quickly assess that the information they chose resides in a “gray area,” and thus might not need to be cited.

If you see in-text citation of sources as a final, trivial step to writing rather than as an integral part, you are bound to slip up somewhere in your citation practice or lose track of the relationship between your own ideas and those of your sources.

did you know
Your college or university has probably has adopted strict policies for dealing with plagiarizing writers. Punishments for plagiarism are severe and may include not only a failing grade for the class, but even an expulsion from the university.

3. Preventing Plagiarism

Plagiarism is a problem that exists not only on college, university, and high school campuses.


In recent years, several high profile cases involving famous writers and journalists have surfaced, in which these writers were accused of either presenting someone else's work as their own or fabricating works based on fictitious or unreliable research.

As mentioned previously, in addition to intentional plagiarism, there is also the unintentional kind. Beginning writers’ work sometimes includes passages which could be considered plagiarized because such writers often do not know how to cite and document external sources properly, or do not understand that importance of following proper citation practices.

Observing the following practices will help you avoid plagiarism:

1. As you research, keep careful notes of your sources. This will help you keep track of which materials in those notes comes from external sources and which material is yours. Be sure to record the following information:

  • Author
  • Title
  • Date of publication
  • Publisher

2. Remember that when you use external sources, you are borrowing not only the words of another writer, but also his or her ideas, theories, and opinions. Therefore, even if you summarize or paraphrase a source, be sure to give it full credit.

In this lesson, you learned when and why it's important to cite sources in your writing. You also learned how plagiarism occurs both intentionally and unintentionally. Therefore, preventing plagiarism by acknowledging your external sources completely and accurately is a vital part of the writing process. Your credibility as a writer and the reception that your work will receive from readers may depend on how well you acknowledge your sources.

Best of luck in your learning!

Source: This content has been adapted from Lumen Learning's "Acknowledging Sources and Avoiding Plagiarism" and "How Plagiarism Occurs" tutorials.

Try the activity on this worksheet to test your ability to detect plagiarism.

Terms to Know

Presenting someone else's ideas or writing as your own, whether intentionally or unintentionally.