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  • Kat Taylor

5 ways to avoid plagiarism and keep your academic writing original

Updated: Aug 19, 2020


MS Word showing highlighted text and a cursor over the menu option 'copy'

Whether it's a 3000 word essay, your PhD thesis or an academic book, during your writing you will, no doubt, have expanded your knowledge by reading related documents by countless academics in your field. These thoughts and ideas will have influenced and shaped your own research and writing, and that's fine; it's an essential part of the process. However, using other people's thoughts or writings as your own, either deliberately or inadvertently, is plagiarism, or academic cheating. Let me explain.

Deliberate plagiarism is actually quite uncommon. This would involve you knowingly and purposefully taking someone else's work and attempting to pass it off as your own. The penalties for this are massive, and universities use software (such as Turnitin) to check for plagiarism so, generally, people just know that they won't get away with it. The odd one will try.

The thing you need to look out for is accidental plagiarism. This can happen to anyone and is usually down to carelessness or misunderstanding. You probably won't even know you've done it, so when the Turnitin report comes back saying that you have plagiarised you might be quite shocked. Especially when you find out that the consequences are often no less severe than for deliberate plagiarism.

Accidental plagiarism can happen when:


  • You don't properly acknowledge your sources in your own work. This could be as simple as misspelling the original author's name.

  • You use someone else's words, drawings, graphs, etc in your work as if they were your own. This can include forgetting to use quotation marks, or paraphrasing using similar words or groups of words without attribution.

  • You have used ideas or facts taken from others but have not given your own view.

  • Now you know what plagiarism is, how do you avoid it?

1) Citations.


Citing usually involves the addition of the author's name plus the year of publication, or similar information. Always follow the guidelines provided by your institution, for example Harvard referencing.

Citing a direct quote is a little different to citing paraphrased material and usually involves the addition of a page number (or a paragraph number if the quote is taken from web content).

If you are using some of your own material from a previous paper (or anywhere else), you must always cite yourself. Treat the text in the same way as you would if someone else had written it. Not doing so is called self-plagiarism, and is equally frowned upon.

2) Quoting.


Always quote your source in exactly the way it appears in the original text. That includes spelling (even if the style differs from your own - think -ize vs. -ise) and punctuation. Don't forget to use open and closed quotation marks to show where the quote starts, and where it ends.

Avoid block quotes; you should be able to paraphrase most material so quoting large chunks of text directly shouldn't be necessary. Adding your own view also shows that you have understood what you read, and that you have an opinion on it.

3) Paraphrasing.


This involves reading the text and then putting it into your own words. You need to be careful even when doing this, as copying more than two words in a row, verbatim, will still flag up as plagiarism. Always use quotation marks if you do happen to use two or more words consecutively from the original text.

4) Referencing.


Always include a references section or bibliography at the end of your paper. As for citations, this section will need to follow the formatting guidelines set out by your school, college or university.

The information you'll include in your references includes the author(s), date of publication, title, and source. It's very important that you get this right as mis-referencing will flag as plagiarism. That includes spelling of authors' names, for example Smith or Smythe.

Start early and always make sure that you keep a good record of all sources used, right from the beginning of your research. There are tools available to do this, or an Excel spreadsheet will do the trick as well.

5) Proofreading.


When you have finished writing, take the time to re-read all of your work and make sure that you have cited every source that you've used. To be doubly safe, hire the services of a professional proofreader (like me) who will check the spelling and formatting of each source and that your citations match your references section, as well as checking your whole document for spelling and grammar, syntax, formatting, etc.

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