Avoiding plagiarism

This page explains to ESL students what plagiarism is and how to avoid it.

Definition of plagiarism

Plagiarism is using other people's words or ideas in your own work - without making it clear to the reader/teacher that the words or ideas have been copied.

If you find some information in a book or on the internet and use it your own writing, you must state the source. If you do not, then you have plagiarised.

Why plagiarism is wrong

@ Plagiarism is wrong because it is a kind of cheating or theft, a theft of another person's ideas and work. ~ Like all offenses, some kinds of plagiarism are more serious than others. The student who copies one or two short phrases from another writer without referencing them is guilty of laziness or forgetfulness, or both.

Compare him, however, with the student who downloads a complete essay answer from the internet and turns it in as his own work. He has committed a far more serious act of plagiarism, and in many academic institutions would be expelled.

Spotting plagiarism

@@ Teachers can usually tell very quickly if a student has plagiarised, especially the ESL student whose writing contains language of unusually high quality: perfect accuracy, rare vocabulary, complex sentence structure, etc. ~~

There are also websites that teachers can use to investigate students suspected of plagiarising whole essays or parts of them.

Avoiding plagiarism 1: Reference all sources

There are various ways to avoid plagiarism. The first way is to ensure that source you use in doing a piece of writing must be appropriately referenced according to its type: book, website, periodical, etc.

There are clear and detailed rules for writing a bibliography (references), and the best modern way is to use a computer app. The online bibliography-maker NoodleTools is one such app. Another app is EasyBib which can be used together with Google Docs.

Avoiding plagiarism 2: Use direct quotations

Copy the text you want to use into your own writing, put quotation (speech) marks around them, and include the appropriate references.

Here is an example of a direct quotation that is embedded in the text. "Embedding is for single sentences or phrases." (Shoebottom 1999: 37)

And following is an example of a longer quotation consisting of an entire paragraph.

Longer quotations are usually indented like this. Notice how quotations are followed in brackets by the name of the author, the date of the text and the page where the quotation can be found. The full reference must then be included in the bibliography at the end of the writing. (Shoebottom 2006: 87)

The bibliography is the section at the end of the writing which cites the works referred to in the text or consulted in the creation of it. Example:

Shoebottom, Paul. A guide to learning English. Frankfurt: FIS Books, 1999.
Shoebottom, Paul. A revised guide to learning English. Frankfurt: FIS Books, 2006.

Note: It is not a good idea to have too many longer quotations in a piece of writing. You give the reader the impression that you have nothing original to say yourself.

Avoiding plagiarism 3: Learn how to paraphrase

Paraphrasing is rewriting the passage (paragraph, sentence or phrase), idea for idea, in your own words. You must still reference the book or internet article at the end of your work as the source of your ideas, but you don't need to use quotation marks.

There are three main ways of paraphrasing, which are often used in combination:

  • use synonyms
  • change syntax (word order)
  • convert parts of speech (e.g. nouns to adjectives, verbs to nouns etc.)

Here is an original text:

"Writing teachers face a dilemma. They want to help their students to develop in every facet of their writing, especially their accuracy and control of standard grammar. Yet responding to students' written errors can be time-consuming and tedious. Worse, it often does not pay off in long-term student improvement. (Ferris, 2002)"

And here is a paraphrased version:

Writing teachers have a problem. Their intention is to help students get better in every aspect of their writing, particularly grammatical accuracy. But it takes a long time to correct student mistakes, and is boring. More importantly, correcting grammar mistakes does not always help the student to become a better writer. (Ferris, 2006)

This paraphrase must be referenced in the bibliography in the usual way.

Ferris, D. Treatment of Error in Second Language Student Writing. The University of Michigan, 2002.

Note: Elsewhere on this site you can use an app to easily generate in-text citations. And here is my video advice on paraphrasing.

Avoiding plagiarism 4: Take good notes

To gain a good grade for a piece of writing it is certainly necessary to avoid plagiarism, but it is not enough. Your teacher will not be happy with a piece of work that consists mainly of direct quotes or close paraphrases, even if these are carefully referenced. It is important for you to formulate your information, opinions and ideas in your own words.

The best way to do this is to take good notes from the source you are using and use only those notes when sitting down to do your writing.

Taking notes in your own language, which you then convey into English sentences, is an even more effective way of ensuring that what you have written is entirely yours in terms of written expression, and therefore not plagiarised.

Alternatively, you can research in your own language, and write notes in that language or in English. Of course, you still need to correctly cite the source of your information.

Further reading

More about how to make good notes.

More about cross-language note-making (includes video explanations).

Information about plagiarism for teachers of ESL students.

More advice on paraphrasing from the Online Writing Lab.