With many students’ first essays of the year due in coming weeks, plagiarism will no doubt be an issue for many. Plagiarism (passing off someone else’s intellectual property as your own) can be deliberate, but in many cases students commit plagiarism by accident — often by copying and pasting chunks of text without rewriting; by paraphrasing incorrectly; or by forgetting to add references.
Electronic submission and plagiarism checking programs mean that plagiarism can easily be detected by essay markers, who typically don’t care if the plagiarism was accidental or not. The consequences of being caught are very serious, with the best-case scenario usually being a fail grade.
Five ways to avoid plagiarism
1. Don’t cut corners
When multiple essays are due at once it can be very tempting to cut corners. Copying and pasting information from websites or electronic documents directly into your essay may save time, but it is very easy to then forget to rewrite the information or to forget to attribute the information to the source. Word-for-word copying is easily spotted by electronic plagiarism-checking programs, so only copy and paste direct quotes into your essay and remember to add quotation marks and attribute them to the correct source then and there.
2. Don’t neglect your reference list
Compile your reference list or bibliography as you work, rather than when the essay is finished. Whenever you use a reference, be sure to record the necessary source details (i.e. author name, title of the work, date, publisher and page number) immediately. This will ensure that you don’t forget to include any references and that you don’t finish the essay and find that you have completely forgotten the source of a particular quote.
3. Use your own words
When you are using reference materials, such as books and journal articles, it can be very easy to stick too closely to the writer’s words when explaining theories and concepts — a surefire way to get yourself caught out for plagiarism. Instead, try closing the book/article, thinking about what the concept means to you and then explaining it in your own words — whatever comes naturally to you. Leave the writer to their extravagant vocabulary; it should be clear to the teacher (and electronic plagiarism checkers) that you wrote the essay, not a seasoned academic.
4. Use direct quotes instead of paraphrasing
Paraphrasing, while effective when used properly, can be quite dangerous. It may involve summarising an academic’s theory (which is their intellectual property) in your own words and attributing that information to them. Many students get caught out because their summaries are too close to the original phrasing. It is just as effective (and much simpler and safer) to use a direct quote from the academic’s work, put it between quotation marks, reference it and then give your opinion on how the concept contributes to your essay topic. This effectively eliminates your need to rewrite difficult concepts in your own words and reduces the risk of committing plagiarism.
5. Unless it’s a group assignment, don’t work with a friend
While it is often helpful to pool your ideas with classmates, working together may lead to both parties producing near-identical essays that use the same ideas, the same words and the same structure. If the essays are too similar, the essay marker can easily catch you out for plagiarism. So keep your essay response and structure to yourself and don’t fall into the trap of emailing your essay to someone in class who insists that they will rewrite it in their own words; it could be detrimental to you both.