Avoid Plagiarism With Intentional Steps


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Thursday, April 20, 2023
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Nobody likes a copycat. It’s drilled into us from an early age: using your own words matters. Doing your own work matters. “Cheaters never prosper.” Most students go through their whole lives without ever thinking about committing plagiarism. The truth is, however, that sometimes you can end up plagiarizing someone else’s work without meaning to. Writing and working in the digital age, it’s easier than ever to accidentally use uncited material. While intent matters, accidental plagiarism is still plagiarism in the eyes of most schools (and plagiarism detection software). 

Here are  a few rules of thumb you can use to avoid plagiarism.

Why You Should Avoid Plagiarism

Beyond the obvious “because you will fail your assignment/class” argument, the real reason to stay on the right side of academic integrity is that you can’t learn through plagiarism. Writing in your own words, coming up with your own arguments, developing a coherent structure to house all these observations: these are key steps toward building both memory retention and mastery of material. If you simply outsource the entire process to a writing program or use someone else’s work, you are denying yourself the chance to learn and push your cognitive capabilities. It isn’t just unethical, it’s self-destructive and antithetical to progressing in your academic career - and future employment career.  Not developing a real comprehension of that material now could have devastating professional consequences down the road.

Always Cite Your Sources

One of the easiest ways to avoid plagiarism and stay on the right track is to cite your sources. One of the tell-tale signs of a plagiarist is someone who obscures and hides their sources. Being as transparent as possible in regards to where you find your information is crucial.

“At Rio, most instructors ask students to use either APA or MLA style when writing papers or citing sources,” said Sarah Stohr, Rio Salado's Faculty Co-Chair for Library Services. “Rio's library has comprehensive guides to help you with citing in either of those styles. If you're not sure which style to use, ask your instructor for guidance.”

Don’t Forgot To Use Quotes

“Part of learning is becoming immersed in the ideas of others and then building off of that knowledge with your own ideas,” said Stohr. If you directly quote someone or use word -for-word content from a source, be sure to place quotation marks around them to make it clear the words are not your own and attribute your source. When it comes to quotations, use them sparingly. A sentence or two when appropriate can hammer your point home; quoting entire paragraphs instead of developing your own arguments is just outsourcing your work to someone else. Be sure to properly use in-text citation style when using direct quotes.

“Whether you are quoting information directly, paraphrasing someone, or summarizing a source, anytime you use information that did not come from your brain, you need to make sure you cite it,” said Stohr.

Copy, Paste, AND Cut

A common practice when it comes to researching online is to copy and paste blocks of relevant text from your sources directly into your working document. Doing this saves you the trouble of flipping back and forth behind tabs. There’s nothing wrong with doing this to keep the info you need close at hand but don’t forget to erase all that pasted reference copy when you no longer need it! If you leave even a sentence or two behind by accident, plagiarism detection software may flag that. It’s best to erase as you go; as soon as you no longer need some information that you brought over to your working doc, get rid of it. Another trick is to color code your writing: one color for your words and another color for copied material. Don’t wait until you’re done writing to do that clean-up.

One other tip to help keep your work and copy and paste content separate is to play with fonts, bolding, and italicization. If you style your reference copy in a different way, it will immediately call your attention to it and let you know that it doesn’t belong in your final draft.

Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

Plagiarism checkers aren’t just for teachers. You can use them to check your own work to make sure it does not raise any red flags. You may wonder, “why would I need to check my work if I know I didn’t plagiarize anything?” For starters: accidents happen. Maybe you forgot to add quotation marks or attribute a source. It’s also possible to accidentally copy something; if you read a piece and think about it for a long enough period of time, it can get absorbed into your memory and feel like something you came up with yourself. It’s like hearing a funny joke a long time ago, forgetting you heard it, and then telling it later like you came up with it yourself. It’s a rare occurrence but it’s been known to happen. That’s why it’s worth running your work through a plagiarism detector just to make sure you aren’t unconsciously parroting something.

Another reason to use a detector is because there’s always the risk that you end up citing material from a source that plagiarized something else! It’s always important to use reputable sources, but sometimes even newspapers, academic journals, and government websites may have plagiarized content on their sites. All it takes is someone else forgetting to cite THEIR sources for you to get flagged by a plagiarism checker for citing their work.

Credit Your Images

Plagiarism isn’t just for words. If you’re going to use any images in your work — be they photos, illustrations, infographics, or videos — you need to credit their creators. Most word processors and online publishing platforms have built-in tools that let you add credits on images, so formatting shouldn’t be an issue. You also want to be careful when you’re using stock images or work published under a Creative Commons license. While many of these images are safe to use for free, some of them will require some form of attribution for their fair use. Always double-check a stock image’s page before downloading it to make sure you follow the license associated with the image.

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Help

If you’re not sure how to cite something, don’t hesitate to reach out to your instructors to ask for clarification. You can also reach out to Ask A Librarian and Tutoring for writing help and advice on citations and how to find reputable sources.


Article by Austin Brietta

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