Avoiding Plagiarism

Many college instructors warn their students about the perils of plagiarism, an academic crime that has serious consequences.  There are probably strict instructions on your course syllabus to avoid plagiarism at all costs.  However, knowing exactly what plagiarism is can be confusing.  Oftentimes, students plagiarize without knowing it.  The following information is here to help you understand what plagiarism is, what plagiarism isn’t, and how you can avoid it.  Because intentional or not, plagiarism is still plagiarism.

What is plagiarism?   

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines plagiarism as, “[t]he act or practice of taking someone else’s work, idea, etc., and passing off as one’s own” (“Plagiarism”).  For example, if I had written that plagiarism is the act or practice of taking someone else’s work, idea, etc., and passing off as one’s own without acknowledging that I got that definition from the OED, I would be guilty of plagiarism because I took someone else’s work (in this case the OED’s) and presented it like it was mine. 

This hypothetical situation is fairly straightforward, but as the OED’s definition states, plagiarism doesn’t necessarily have to involve quoted material.  Plagiarized material can be directly quoted (as above), but it can also be paraphrased or summarized.  That is, you can plagiarize by simply presenting someone else’s idea(s) as your own, regardless of whether or not the exact wording of that idea is yours. 

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How do I avoid plagiarism?

Simply put, you can avoid plagiarism by giving credit to those whose ideas you’ve incorporated into your own work.  You can start while researching your paper topic by carefully noting who and/or what sources you get your information from as well as where you found those sources.  This will make things easier when you start to write your paper later on. 

To credit ideas not original to you within your paper, regardless of whether you’ve quoted, paraphrased, or summarized those ideas, always include both an in-text citation and a reference list entry. For example, in the OED’s definition of plagiarism quoted above, I’ve placed the borrowed material in quotation marks and cited my source according to MLA in-text citation guidelines. The quotation marks tell my reader that I’ve reproduced the OED’s definition word for word while the in-text citation tells my reader that I am borrowing someone else’s definition and directs the reader to my Works Cited list (a.k.a. Reference list or Bibliography) below. In my Works Cited list, I've included a full entry for "plagiarism" Which allows the reader to check my source.

Students are sometimes unsure about when they should quote and when they should paraphrase or summarize their outside sources.  According to The St. Martin’s Guide to Writing, there are just five situations when it is necessary to quote your source: (1) when changing the wording of the original source might also change the intended meaning or make the borrowed information any less useful, (2) when you want to support your own ideas with the opinion(s) of an expert on the subject, (3) when you want to draw attention to a particular author’s views, (4) when you want to acknowledge the views of a particular author that are different from the views held by other experts, or (5) when an author’s specific word choice is relevant (Axelrod and Cooper 738).

In all other situations, you should either paraphrase or summarize.  To paraphrase something, quotation marks aren’t necessary; the idea is to get the original source’s main point(s) across in your own words in roughly the same amount of space, but you still need a citation and an entry on your reference list.  For example, rather than directly quoting the list from The St. Martin’s Guide to Writing above, I chose to paraphrase it because the original list doesn’t fit its own criteria for quoting.  Even though there are no quotation marks around the borrowed material, my in-text citation and respective Works Cited entry lets any potential reader know that the list is not my idea and makes it easy for that reader to refer back to the original list if she chooses to do so. 

Summarizing is a lot like paraphrasing because the goal is to get the original source’s main point across in your own words, though it usually involves condensing a lot of material down into a considerable smaller amount of space.  Again, proper citation is still necessary.

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So, what isn’t plagiarism?

One of the reasons plagiarism is such a frustrating topic for many college students is that they often get the feeling that everything should be cited.  While it’s often better to be safe than sorry, you’re not always obligated to cite your sources, but only in certain situations.  In fact, there are just four exceptions to the rule when it comes to citing sources.  It is not necessary to cite common knowledge (such as George Washington was the first president of the United States), information available in many sources, well-known quotations, and last but certainly not least, material you’ve produced or collected on your own.

When it’s all said and done, instructors aren’t likely to assign you an essay solely to see how well you can collect, present, and cite others’ ideas.  More often than not, instructors are interested in hearing what ideas you have.  Outside sources, while often an important part of research papers, are there to lend authority to your writing and support your ideas.

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A word about citation styles

It’s important to note that different academic disciplines employ different citation styles that can vary in a number of ways (though most tend to follow a similar format).  The MLA style I am using here is just one of these citation styles.  If you’re unsure about which citation style is appropriate for a particular class, you can always check with your instructor.  Randall Library’s “ready reference” section (located at the reference desk) has multiple copies of different style guides available for use.  While citation styles differ, the purpose is always the same: citation makes it easy for the reader to distinguish between which ideas are original to the author and which are not and allows the reader to check the author’s sources.

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For more information

Randall Library is an excellent resource for learning more about Plagiarism.

Also, please review the UNCW Academic Honor Code.   

Works Cited

Axelrod, Rise B., and Charles R. Cooper.  The St. Martin’s Guide to Writing.  8th ed.  Boston:
          Bedford, 2008.

“Plagiarism.”  Def. 1.  OED Online.  Ed.  John Simpson.  2nd ed.  1989.  Oxford English            Dictionary.  7 June 2007            <http://dictionary.oed.com.uncclc.coast.uncwil.edu/public/inside/editors_2.htm>.

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- Nick Crawford


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