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FAQs about plagiarism in academic writing

Am I not allowed to use others’ work at all?

Of course you are! Building up on other researchers’ work is not the same as plagiarizing. In fact, it is entirely expected that researchers draw on each other’s works and ideas to advance knowledge in their field. As long as you give others credit, it is completely fine.

How can plagiarism be detected?

Most commonly, universities and publishers detect plagiarism through the use of specialized software that automatically compares texts to a database of published texts (‘plagiarism checkers’). If a text is found to resemble other texts too closely, it will be flagged as containing plagiarism. An example of such software is Turnitin. In some cases, plagiarism is obvious to the naked eye. If the style or tone of a sentence are very different from other parts of your text, this is a red flag.

What is the best anti-plagiarism checker?

There are many plagiarism checkers out there, varying in cost and quality. The first thing you need to do is think about your budget and how thorough you would like the tool to be. A lot of free plagiarism checkers will stick to superficial checks, that is, flagging only cut-and-paste content. Paid-for plagiarism checkers can detect plagiarism not only through copy-pasted content but also in the form of paraphrases, for instance. The databases used to compare texts also tend to be larger in paid-for plagiarism checkers. To pick the best tool for you, do some online research and read user reviews. You could also speak to your supervisor or colleagues to find what tool(s) they use and like.

Can anti-plagiarism checkers be trusted to flag all plagiarized content?

The best plagiarism tools should be able to detect all forms of plagiarism. Their performance is determined by two main factors: the size of the database against which they compare texts, and the quality of the algorithm they use.

You can learn about various plagiarism checkers’ accuracy through word of mouth or user reviews online.

Is it possible for me to plagiarize myself?

Yes, it is. If you are reusing work that you have already published or submitted elsewhere without providing a citation, you are plagiarizing yourself. This applies whether you are reusing an entire paper or just a few sentences or paragraphs, or even data that you are recycling from a previous paper. It is entirely possible to do those things as long as you cite yourself. Otherwise, you are falsely presenting ideas as new and original.

What is the penalty for academic plagiarism?

The penalties for plagiarism can range from failing an assignment to legal proceedings, depending on the severity. The most common consequences for a student submitting a piece of work containing plagiarized content range from failing an exam/module to being suspended from a course or expelled from a university. More serious penalties occur where the text in question is submitted for publication, or where the amount of plagiarizing is substantial. In any case, plagiarizing hurts a researcher’s reputation and can make it harder to secure funding or obtain tenure.

What is accidental / unintentional plagiarism?

Accidental or unintentional plagiarism is when you don’t intend to plagiarize, but it still happens. It is very common, and often happens through a lack of citing and referencing knowledge, poor organization (such as not keeping track of sources), or paraphrasing that is too close to the original wording.

Even accidental plagiarism can lead to an academic penalty. If you are worried about accidentally plagiarizing, consider running your text through a plagiarism checker to put your mind at ease.

How do I avoid accidental or unintentional plagiarism?

Beyond using a plagiarism checker, there are steps you can take to familiarize yourself with citing and referencing conventions. See if your university or research institute offers courses on plagiarism and how to develop effective academic skills such as writing, note-taking and referencing. Make sure you know about all the different forms of plagiarism, and how to avoid them. Finally, ask your supervisor or research colleagues for guidance if you are unsure of anything. Plagiarism is a universal concern in academia.

Do I have to cite sources for every statement in my paper?

No, you don’t. If you are referring to something that is widely known and easily verified (i.e. is common knowledge, such as historical events or dates), you don’t need to include a citation. If you are unsure about something being common knowledge or not, either ask your supervisor or research colleagues for advice, or add a citation anyway. You can also check this page.

You also don’t need to cite sources for your own ideas, of course (unless these ideas were formulated in a previous paper of yours).

If I change the words, do I still have to cite the source?

Yes, absolutely. Changing words in a sentence (also called paraphrasing) does not substitute for referencing. If you are using someone else’s idea, even though you are using your own words, a citation is required. This way, you are giving the author of the idea or theory the credit they deserve, and demonstrating honesty to your readers. Read more on this topic here.

If I cite the source, can I still be accused of plagiarism?

Yes. If you cite a source but forget to include quotation marks around a direct quote, then you are plagiarizing. In this case, even if you are acknowledging the source of the idea or piece of information, you are appropriating the original words of the author as yours. If you don’t want to use a direct quote and quotation marks, then you will need to paraphrase the sentence using your own words. Learn more about paraphrasing here.

When should I use a direct quote and when should I paraphrase?

If the exact wording from a source is important, or if a phrase is too difficult to paraphrase, you should use a direct quote. You should ensure that quotation marks are placed correctly around the chunk of text you are citing. See example phrases to introduce a direct quote here. If the wording itself isn’t important, and you just want to refer to an idea, then paraphrasing is enough. But don’t make a mistake of assuming that a citation isn’t needed in this case. After all, you are still borrowing content. Learn more about paraphrasing here.

How do I introduce a direct quote?

These are examples phrases to introduce direct quotes within your text:

  • As [Author] argues/explains/notes/observes: "…".
  • As stated by [Author], "…".
  • [Author] summarizes these results as follows: "…".
  • In interpreting the data, [Author] observes that "…".
  • In their most recent paper, [Authors] argue that "…".
  • The author defines [X] as follows: "…".
  • In [Author's] work, this concept is described as "…".
  • The following definition has been given by [Author]: "…".

Find more phrases from Writefull’s Sentence Palette

Is paraphrasing considered plagiarism?

Paraphrasing is not considered plagiarism as long as a citation is included. Even if an idea or piece of information is conveyed with your own words, it is essential to acknowledge where it comes from. If you don’t, you are falsely claiming that it is your own. Not only is this dishonest to the academic community and unfair to the original author(s), it can also be punished.

Does plagiarism apply only to text?

Plagiarism most commonly happens with text, but the requirement to acknowledge someone else’s work is not confined to words. It also covers things like visuals (graphs, diagrams, illustrations, tables, figures), data sets, models, source code, etc. If you are using any of these, make sure you acknowledge where they come from. Published data sets and source code often have a license (for example, a Creative Commons license) that tells you how you are allowed to reuse it, and how to cite it.

If I borrow from something that isn’t published, is it also plagiarism?

Plagiarism does not only apply to published material. As soon as you are borrowing from another person’s work, whether published (for example, a journal article) or unpublished (like lecture slides, an essay, a thesis), you should acknowledge it. This also includes content from websites.