Avoiding Unintentional Plagiarism

Plagiarism is a nasty word, especially where academics are concerned. Unfortunately, plagiarism can be a fairly easy crime to commit; even the most honest of students could, unintentionally, present an idea without giving the proper credit. Writing a research paper involves using a variety of voices (especially yours!) and making them work in unison, so the trick to avoiding to plagiarism is to understand how these voices work in your paper and to get yourself into some good habits, from taking good notes to properly paraphrasing.

Remember: synthesize, don’t plagiarize!

Writing Habits and Pitfalls that Can Lead to Plagiarism

So, how do you know if you’re plagiarizing?

  • If you find yourself struggling to rearrange the words in a sentence so that it sounds different enough to plug into a paper, you run a high risk of plagiarism.
  • If you use a quote and don’t indicate where you got it from, you’re definitely plagiarizing. You’re even plagiarizing if you insert a perfectly good paraphrase into your paper and don’t use a citation.
  • Know that language plagiarism is when you use someone else’s words (even if those words are slightly tweaked).

Plagiarism of ideas is when you use someone else’s ideas without citing him or her.

Avoiding plagiarism

Taking Notes

The first step to avoiding plagiarism is taking good notes. Be sure to write down your information sources. When you jot down a quote, write down who said it. This way, when it comes time to write a paper, you won’t need to go searching for where you got your information, and you’ll know exactly which source said what. Also make sure you use quotation marks for items that you cut and paste into your notes.


An essential step in avoiding plagiarism is learning how to paraphrase.  There are a couple of approaches you might take; both involve fully understanding what a source is saying.

  • After a few minutes of reading, set your book or article aside and write down what you learned. What is the key information you take away from this reading? 
  • The goal is to write down the important points in your reading, but in your own words. You might use this method in your regular note taking, especially when you are doing research. When you come across an important or interesting piece of information, record it and use it later when you actually write your paper. The best part? It will already be in your own words.
  • If you have a specific quote that you need to paraphrase, try to pick out the main terms in that quote. What is the quote saying about those terms? Again, write down key points you get out of the quote. This method is especially useful if you have recorded several direct quotes in your notes. It might be tempting to simply insert those quotes into your paper, but remember that most of your writing should be your own. Limit the amount of quotes you use. Try to interpret quotations in your own words; you will be a more effective writer, and your professors will love you for it.


For those few times when paraphrasing would be a blatant insult against an author’s particular style or phrasing, quoting is the best way to go. Only use a quote if you think a sentence has a special style or way of presenting information, and remember that quotes should almost never be longer than a couple of lines.

Basically, if you can’t say it any better, quote it.  


If you got an idea, fact or figure, or quote from a certain source, cite it. There are certain citation styles that have been developed and agreed-upon within the academic world, and any good scholar or student uses them to give credit where it’s due and list sources. Do choose one citation style, whether it is APA, Chicago, MLA, or some other style, as specified by your professor, and stick with it throughout your paper.

Also, be sure that you know whether to use footnote, endnotes, a bibliography, or works-cited list (your professor will let you know, and if you’re not sure, ask). Each different citation style has different conventions, so familiarize yourself with the one you will be using.