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How to Avoid Plagiarism in School Papers

Simple ways you can make sure you aren’t accidentally plagiarizing when you write.

October 31, 2018

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Not only will these tips help you become a better writer, and get better grades, they will also help you become a better thinker!

When Plagiarism is Stealing

The most obvious form of plagiarism is submitting someone else’s work as your own. That type of stealing is never accidental. Either you wrote it before submitting it or you didn’t. Even changing a few words here and there is still plagiarism, and thanks to the internet, there are easy ways for teachers to discover how authentic your work is. Sometimes, to make work look authentic, students take a Doctor Frankenstein approach to writing -- stealing a paragraph from one source and another block of copy from a different source -- until the document looks like a patched-up Frankenstein’s monster. Accidentally leaving out quotes and forgetting to add a source to your bibliography are obvious plagiarism red flags. But did you know that paraphrasing -- rearranging words to make it sound “different enough” -- is also a form of plagiarism?

Plagiarism isn’t just stealing words -- it’s using ideas without giving credit for them, or faking sources when you’ve made up facts.

But accidental plagiarism exists, too, and even students with the best intentions can get in trouble without realizing they're doing anything wrong!

To avoid accidental plagiarism, take good notes in your own words and write the first draft only using your notes, suggests Elise Barbeau of EasyBib.com. Add your supporting evidence later once your own thoughts are on the page. Cite any facts, figures, numbers, and even ideas in your bibliography. Not just to give credit to your sources, but also so you and your teacher can go back and verify -- double-check -- the facts if needed, and also so you can gain more information if you need to flesh out your ideas more as you edit later on.

How to take great notes 

Note-taking is an important skill that will serve you well past school, for the rest of your life and your career. Some people seem to be born to be great note-takers, but most aren’t! It takes a lot of practice and trial and error to see which technique is best for you. Taking great notes is a matter of fully understanding what you’re reading first before you start writing. When you’re first approaching a source, read the first section, then take a moment and write a sentence telling what the section is about. For example, if you were taking notes on this article, you could write: “This article presents simple ways you can make sure you aren’t accidentally plagiarizing when you write.” It’s no coincidence that is also the subhead of this article at the top! Subheads are a great way to get the gist of what an article is about to say the author’s reason for writing the article, and sometimes even the author’s perspective or opinion about it.

When you write notes, don’t use full sentences and never copy anything word-for-word from your source. Paraphrasing and writing in bullets instead of sentences helps you avoid accidentally borrowing words that feel right together because you’ve seen, heard, and typed them before. It also allows you to synthesize -- put together in your own way -- the idea behind the words.

If you find a great quote when you’re taking notes, write it down and write down who said it in a different color ink or indent it on the page. This way, it’s obvious to you that you’ll either have to copy and cite it properly or distill the idea and incorporate it into your notes later.

Using quotes

One mistake people make is using a quote if there is an idea they don’t think they can say any better themselves. If that is the case, you may not have understood it fully. Go back to your source and read the paragraph before and after the quote to try to get a clearer picture. Then summarize the quote in a sentence out loud. That sentence is the one you’ll want to use instead! It will be your thoughts applied to the words you just read. In almost every case, that is the goal of the assignment -- how well you understand the concepts and how well you can describe those concepts in your own words.

When to use a quote:

  • If the writer you’re quoting is stating a strong opinion.
  • If you are quoting a statistic or fact
  • If it’s a famous and memorable quotation
  • To prove a point you are trying to make

Your teacher may have already set you up with an account on turnitin.com, a site where you can check your paper for originality (AKA plagiarism red flags), but if you’re looking for help before your paper reaches your teacher or classmates’ watchful eyes, you can find help with a few automated apps.

  • turnitin.com If you have a login ID, Turn it In can help you check -- and fix -- your work before you submit it.
  • easybib.com EasyBib can help you check your paper for plagiarism, help you create a bibliography, and help you check your grammar, sentence structure, writing style, spelling, and punctuation. You can paste your entire paper into their paper checker widget or create citations one by one in whatever style your teacher specifies.
  • hemingwayapp.com Ernest Hemingway wrote novels and newspaper articles. His style is known for being very efficient -- no word was ever wasted. Paste your essay into the Hemingway app to find out where your sentence structure could be made more clear, check readability statistics, help you avoid over-using adverbs, and generally suggest where you can make your writing more active, engaging and clear. It won’t check for plagiarism, however!

Tell us what you think!

Have you ever been accused of plagiarism? Do you have trouble writing papers at school? What’s the hardest part of school writing assignments? Share your pain points here and we may turn it into a future Kidzworld Homework Help feature!