How to Avoid Plagiarism

If you are a student at a university, then it is imperative that you avoid plagiarism in your work; otherwise, you may face sanctions that could see you fail your assignment, be suspended from your academic institution, or even be expelled. There are some very clear rules to follow in order to ensure that you don’t plagiarise the work of other people, but there are also some more nuanced elements that must be understood. For example, one must certainly not copy any text, word for word, without including quotation marks and providing a source for the work. This is a very easy thing to understand and something that most students grasp and comprehend. However, there are some more ambiguous aspects of plagiarism that can equally get you into trouble, such as offering information that is not common knowledge and not providing a citation. This is less clear, as one person might think that certain information is common knowledge, and another might not. Therefore, if in doubt, then it is probably better to provide a source. Thus, it might not be necessary to include a source to refer to the First World War of 1914-1918, as this is a really well known historical event. Nevertheless, it might be wise to include a source if referring to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which arguably served as the catalyst for this global war, as this is perhaps less well known. As such, it is important to develop an understanding of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in academic writing, and in order to do this, reading academic papers and journal articles can be of help.

Being Aware of and Identifying Different Types of Plagiarism

It is probably useful to make a list of all kinds of plagiarism so that you can be aware of each of these types when writing your work, and so these include:

  • Copying text word-for-word without including quotation marks or a source
  • Paraphrasing somebody else’s work without including a source
  • Paying somebody to create a piece of work for you on a given subject
  • Using words or ideas from a previous essay that you have written yourself
  • Using work or ideas from another student’s essay
  • Using sections from different sources and stitching them all together, and presenting them as an original work without reference to these sources
  • Using ‘find and replace’ functions in software such as Microsoft Word, to alter a few words from a text that you have copied word-for-word
  • Using an incorrect source or fabricating one that doesn’t exist to add credibility to an idea
  • Using a reference but not properly representing the ideas of the original work
  • Using a very specific structure for a piece of writing that has been used by another author, and just slightly amending the content
  • Using a thesaurus to rewrite a passage, but failing to offer a source for the work
  • Using another student’s essay without their consent, and passing it off as your own work
  • Submitting similar or identical work in different courses, modules, or assignments

As you can see, this is quite an extensive list, and involves much more than simply copying content word-for-word without offering a source. This can therefore be both intentional and unintentional, or it can be done willingly or accidentally. Nevertheless, regardless of this, any work identified as being a work of plagiarism will be punished according to the regulations laid out by the university or educational institution. Therefore, it is important to make a note of these different kinds of plagiarism, and to ensure that you do not break any rules in respect of this. However, beyond this, there are also various things that you can do to avoid plagiarism, or at least to provide some insurance against it, and this is something that shall now be looked at in a little more detail.

Things You Can Do To Avoid Plagiarism

So what can you do to ensure that plagiarism is not present in your work? Well, this should be a three-step process, which includes diligence: (1) before writing your work, (2) during writing your work, and (3) after your work has been written. What this means is that in the first stage, when doing your research and taking notes, you must ensure that any notes are accompanied with the correct references, and that such notes provide an accurate representation of the author’s ideas if you intend to use this in your work. Thus, it might be very easy to look back on your notes and convince yourself that these were your ideas if there are no sources accompanying them, and especially if you take a lot of notes, like many students do. However, if you do take a lot of notes, and you are not especially well organised, then this can prove to be quite dangerous, as you might inadvertently create a piece of work that is riddled with plagiarism. So, you need to be diligent in this research stage, and make sure that your note taking is done carefully and with the correct references accompanying it. Obviously, when you begin actually writing your work, you also need to ensure that your work is correctly cited and referenced, and that all of the ideas that are not referenced are your own. Finally, when you have completed your work, or at least a draft of it, you must carefully check through the piece, and make sure that no citations or references have been left out by accident. Moreover, if you do feel that you have missed something, then you must go back and try to locate the source of the words or idea, or to cut it out if you cannot find it (as this can sometimes be difficult). Thus, by the time you print your work ready for submission (or finalise it if it is a digital submission), you must be confident that everything in your work has been correctly cited and referenced, using the referencing style that has been requested in your assignment specifications. Furthermore, if you are not sure about anything, then you must refer back to your course handbook, to read the particular rules and regulations of your specific university or educational institution.

In addition, as an added layer of insurance against plagiarism in your work, before submitting your piece, you might also use some dedicated plagiarism software, such as Viper, which allows you to digitally check the content of your work against all online content, or anything stored within the software databases. By doing this, you can generate a report that shows you the percentage and type of plagiarism present in your work, and if such percentages are too high, then you could address these concerns before handing in your piece. While this is only a safeguard against digital content, it does provide an added layer of security before submitting your work – and provides a systematic effort towards ensuring that you have not inadvertently plagiarised the work of any other authors. There are a number of services that offer plagiarism detection for a price, with Viper being just one of these services. However, with a little investment, one can largely mitigate any chance of being punished for plagiarism later, and such an investment could save a lot of time and stress in the long run. While you may be able to do a basic check of sections of content by using search engines such as Google or Yahoo, this kind of check does not have the same sophistication as dedicated plagiarism platforms do, which provide a range of features. For example, for just £3 per 5,000 words, Viper not only checks content against over ten billion sources – which includes e-books, PDFs, academic papers, and online journal across the World Wide Web – but it also does this very quickly, and matches direct content and provides a plagiarism score and offers a detailed report. This then, provides excellent value and at an affordable price. In the twenty-first century, if someone is serious about their education, then it makes sense to make such small investments to guard against plagiarism, and especially since a university education has become so expensive these days. For example, if you are already spending £15,000-£50,000 on your university education, then it makes sense to take some insurance out against this investment, by spending just a few pounds per assignment, to make sure that you will not get in trouble for plagiarism, and risk losing your place at your educational institution, along with the money that you have put into your education heretofore. Really, this should be a no-brainer, but many students still do not use plagiarism detection software or online platforms like Viper, and this means that accidental instances of plagiarism do still occur. Ultimately, universities are now using such plagiarism detection platforms themselves, and so it makes sense to find out what they will before you hand in your assignment – as you do not want any nasty surprises after it is too late. So it is advised that thorough checks of any work be made prior to submission, and plagiarism detection platforms can be a great tool in your arsenal for carrying out such checks. Therefore, such an option is very much advised.

Some Examples and Cases in Point

At this point, it might also be useful to provide a few examples of good practice in order to avoid plagiarism. So without further ado, here are some cases to highlight what to do, and what not to do.

The following is a passage taken from the abstract of a journal article in a journal called Perspectives on Politics by Kieran Healy. It states that:

“I informally examine how the idea of public sociology has been affected by the rise of social media. New social media platforms disintermediate communication, make people more visible, and encourage public life to be measured. They tend to move the discipline from a situation where some people self-consciously do ‘public sociology’ to one where more sociologists unselfconsciously do sociology in public. I discuss the character of such ‘latently public’ work, the opportunities and difficulties it creates for individuals, and its tendency to be associated with academic fields that believe in what they are doing”.

This is not something that would normally be used as a direct quotation, for a number of reasons. First, it is written in the first person, and so this could not seamlessly be inserted into a third person piece, while it is also not good practice to use an abstract from a journal article as a direct quotation, as this represents merely a summary of the journal article. However, abstracts can be very useful when working with a large volume of journal articles, and so once you have read the paper, you can use the abstract of the piece as a guide to sum up the research (or you might not even need to read the full paper if the abstract is sufficiently in-depth). However, if you are not using it as a direct quotation, then you at least need to paraphrase the work, and this can be a tricky process. If you use too many words from the original piece, then it could be flagged as plagiarism. In fact, in many ways, paraphrasing work is much more difficult than directly quoting and citing a piece, which is, of course, much more straightforward if you are familiar with the rules and conventions of referencing in a particular style. Therefore, with this particular passage, a good conversion might be:

Healy (2017) looks at how social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, have impacted upon the notion of public sociology. In this study, such platforms are examined to show how social media can make people’s lives more visible, and allow certain aspects of their lives to be measured through such digital communication.

As such, while this information remains true to the original text, there is no notable comparison between the two texts when run through a text comparison platform, and so it is very unlikely to be flagged as plagiarism in this form, and especially if the correct reference is used at the end of the text, which should look something like (depending upon the style of referencing requested for your project):

Healy, K. (2017) ‘Public Sociology in the Age of Social Media’, Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 15, No. 3, pp. 771-780.

Thus, a portion of the abstract from this journal article has been used and paraphrased, so that it looks completely different, while the original idea and content has been maintained, without adding anything new that was not contained in the original article. While this is not an easy task for freshers and those new to essay writing, seasoned essay writers can achieve such a conversion with relative ease, and can be confident that they will not be accused of plagiarism once the work has been run through some dedicated plagiarism detection software.

In addition, another example of how plagiarism can be avoided is with the following. In this article that discusses police stop and searches in the UK, published by the BBC News, a quotation is included by the Home Office, which states that:

“This continues the rising trend in arrest rates in recent years, and supports the idea that the police are taking a more targeted approach to the use of stop and search, and are therefore finding a reason for an arrest in a higher proportion of cases.”

Thus, in this case, the BBC News clearly states that it was the Home Office who said this, and so if you were to say that the BBC News said this, and treated it as a quote from the BBC News, then this of course could be regarded as plagiarism, as it would not be a true representation of who said this. As such, good practice dictates that in this instance, you must say that:

The Home Office (2018, cited in BBC News, 2018) states that: “This continues the rising trend in arrest rates in recent years, and supports the idea that the police are taking a more targeted approach to the use of stop and search, and are therefore finding reason for an arrest in a higher proportion of cases” (n.p.).

Therefore, this is a quotation cited by another source, and it should be referenced as such. Moreover, as this is taken from an online source, there are no page numbers, and so the quotation should be labelled as ‘n.p.’ (which is an abbreviation for ‘no page number’), which is commonly used in the academic world when sources are not paginated. As such, always make sure that you cite the original author or idea if the writing has been taken from another author – and this is quite easy to spot, as the source you are working from should have referenced the previous work, just as the BBC News makes reference to the Home Office before this quotation. Thus, it is very important that you understand the precedents and conventions of referencing academic work, as any significant deviation from this could also result in accusations of plagiarism. Incidentally, the reference for this source should look something like:

BBC News (2018) ‘Stop and search: How successful is the police tactic?’ BBC News [online], https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-43641009, Date accessed 2/2/2019.

Again, the format of the reference will depend upon the particular referencing style requested in your assignment guidelines, with this style being in the Harvard referencing style. Furthermore, you do not need the original source for the Home Office quote in your references, as this is simply a citation taken from another text, which is in this case that of the BBC News source. However, you should still run your work through dedicated plagiarism detection software such as Viper, as the source you have taken it from may not have given credit to the original source or the person who said the words – and in which case, you could get flagged for plagiarism by default. Nevertheless, it is ultimately your responsibility to check your own work for plagiarism, and so if you do not do everything that you possibly can to guard against this, then you could find yourself in trouble. For many people, plagiarism is not an overt and conscious act of cheating, but rather, it is an oversight and a misunderstanding of what is expected of their academic work. However, in this case, ignorance is not bliss, as higher education institutions can now easily detect such oversights in the era of the Digital Age; and just to hammer home this point completely, and without any doubt… it is YOUR responsibility to check your own work for plagiarism, and nobody else’s! For freshers at university, this is possibly particularly difficult to grasp, as that safe and secure world that they previously were a part of, within the cocoon of their parents and schoolteachers, has now been discarded with; and they are suddenly responsible for their own lives and everything that they do in the adult world. Therefore, in the world of higher education, autonomy and individual responsibility is key, and so this is something that every student of higher education has to get used to. There is no scope for blaming others or claiming that one is not aware of the rules and regulations of plagiarism, as all of these rules and regulations pertaining to plagiarism are given out by every university department and course, as a matter of routine. Moreover, these rules and regulations are purposely made to be very clear, so that there is no room for debate.

One final example and case in point of how to avoid plagiarism and engage in good practice, is the following. In this case, the student wants to draw on some previous work, but needs to ensure that they are not flagged for plagiarism. Their previous essay stated that:

“It is useful to compare society to that of human biology – which is an idea that is rooted in the work of Herbert Spencer and his ‘organic analogy’ of society (Jayapalan, 2001). Thus, in the same way that gastritis could be indicative of high levels of stress, in society, high levels of street crime could be an indication that the economy is in trouble. As such, this is very much in the tradition of the structural-functionalist perspective (Erickson & Murphy, 2013), which views society as being made up of a matrix of interconnected parts, which must all be functioning to high levels if the system as a whole is to remain healthy and progressive”

Now, it is perfectly acceptable to draw on this knowledge in another subject and topic area, as it refers to very general theories and ideas that are well established, and well known. So it is not beyond the realm of possibility that this is widely discussed. However, care must still be taken, and this can be done in a number of ways. It is therefore important: (a) not to use the same words, (b) not to use the same structure, and (c) not to use the same sources. Thus, if you adhere to this, then you are very unlikely to be flagged for plagiarism and re-using your old work. As such, an alternative piece of writing could be:

“Herbert Spencer’s ‘organic analogy’ (Richter, 1982) makes a comparison between biological organisms and society, in that each represent systems that are made up of interconnected parts. Moreover, if a balance is lost within one part of this system, then the organism as a whole is likely to suffer, as each part affects each other part. This idea provided the basis for the structural-functionalist perspective (Hooper, 2013), which views society as being the totality of various parts and structures, each of which provides a function for society as a whole. So, just as intense headaches could be a symptom of bacterial meningitis, over-crowded prisons could also indicate that unemployment levels are unacceptably high.”

As you can see, although the same basic ideas and knowledge has been drawn from, this has been reworked sufficiently for it to not be considered to be an act of plagiarism. The structure of the paragraph has been changed, while the original citations have similarly been changed, along with the examples given. This is now a completely different piece of writing, and it is perfectly acceptable to draw from these same macro theories, as they are wide-ranging and well used in the social sciences. However, one must guard against being lazy, and not taking this far enough; otherwise, it might be flagged by in-house plagiarism software that keeps a record of all past essays submitted, and this could land you in hot water. The key here then, is to change the writing in steps, and to ensure that all of these three aforementioned steps are adhered to. Another danger is that you do not refer to your previous essay at all, and simply draw from your knowledge from memory. If you do this, then you also run the risk of subconsciously reusing old work, and so it is probably better to check through past work, and make sure that you are not recycling previous ideas and content. If you have written one piece, then it would be very easy and natural for you to write another piece in a similar way, if it is on a similar topic. So if in doubt, check your old work for any similarities.

Finally, one more thing that you could do before submitting any work is to get your personal tutor to check over it, to see if he/she can identify any anomalies in your referencing, or anything that might be a cause for concern in respect of plagiarism. Thus, by taking this approach, you are not formally committing an act of plagiarism, because you are not formally submitting the work as your own, and are simply working on a piece in progress. Moreover, if your tutor will also be responsible for ultimately marking the work, if you have discussed possible areas of concern in advance of submitting the work, then they are very unlikely to flag anything as being plagiarism – as by doing so, they will be undermining their own advice. As such, this is one final step that you can take in your fight against plagiarism.

Conclusions

In conclusion, in your fight against guarding against plagiarism in your work, you must first educate yourself and learn about the different types of plagiarism, so that you can identify this in your work. Moreover, you must also use a three-step process in your fight against plagiarism, which involves taking steps before, during, and after the creation of your work. To add to this, another layer of insurance that you can use is to sign up to some dedicated plagiarism detection software, such as Viper, so that all online digital content can be checked against your work, to search for any similarities. After all, this is what universities will be doing to ensure that your work does not contain any plagiarism, and so this is what you should also do in advance of submitting your work. Some examples and cases in point have been provided as a learning tool, but it should be noted that this represents just a small selection of possible hurdles in mitigating plagiarism, and much more research is needed if you want to fully understand the various nuances and types of plagiarism that you might come across. At the end of the day, most students do not want to include plagiarism in their work, and it takes a lot of effort to ensure that this is not the case. However, if you do take such steps, then you can submit your work with a certain degree of peace of mind, knowing that you have done all that you can to reduce the risk of your work being flagged for any instances of plagiarism.