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FAQs about paraphrasing in academic writing

Do I always need to paraphrase a source when I cite it?

This depends on the type of citation. You must always cite a source you use. But whether you also paraphrase the source depends on how you use it. There are three options:

  1. If you’re citing sources without reusing specific sentences, you cite without paraphrasing. This is because you’re borrowing a general concept or fact, and not a particular piece of text. For example:
    • Several studies have analysed the embryonic development of penguins (Author, 2001; Author, 2020; Author, 2022).
    • Climate change has been found to affect the spread of forest fires (Author, 2020).
  2. If you’re citing a source to share relevant words, don’t paraphrase but quote the author (“...”). This is appropriate, for example, if the author defines a concept or gives an opinion, and you want to keep the exact wording intact. For example:
    • Author (2021, p. 11) refers to this method as “the most undervalued technique in psycholinguistics”.
  3. If you’re citing to reuse information from specific sentences but the author’s exact words aren’t relevant, you paraphrase. You can paraphrase an idea, finding, concept, study aim, or anything else - as long as it’s something you can explain in your own words. For example:
    • Original sentence: To predict how the sea temperature will continue to rise, one should employ recent models.
    • Paraphrase: According to Author (2021), sea temperature increases should be predicted using the latest models.

If I paraphrase another source enough, do I still need to cite it?

Yes! Paraphrasing is not an alternative to citing. No matter how much paraphrasing you do, you’re still using the author’s ideas - and that is why you must cite the source.

The only time you don’t need to cite is when the source covers common knowledge, i.e. things that you can expect to be known by the general public or, if not known, can be looked up very easily. For example, when writing a paper about the Amazon, you might mention which South American countries it spans. But you wouldn’t need to cite a source for this, even if you used one yourself to look it up, because it’s widely accessible knowledge. The source that explains it is one of many, and the information isn’t new.

It can sometimes be difficult to judge whether something is general knowledge. If you’re not sure, it’s best to cite your source.

What’s the difference between a quote and a paraphrase? When do I use what?

You use quotes when the language of the original source matters, which means you can only fully convey the message through the author’s original words.

You can use quotes to:

  • define something Author (2022, p.90) has defined this system as “the embodiment of knowledge”.
  • reveal the tone of an author Author considers it “a war against science and humanity” (2018, p. 199).
  • reuse a longer snippet of text, also called a ‘block quote’ (an indented paragraph on a new line). From what length you should use a block quote, rather than an in-text quote, depends on your referencing style. For example, APA prescribes block quotes from 40+ words.

Although quoting is more common in some disciplines than others, you want to do it sparingly. This is because quotes lose their power if they are overused. It can also come across as lazy if your text stitches quotes together.

For all cases where the language of the author doesn’t matter as much as the message, a paraphrase makes more sense. This is especially the case for practical information, such as explaining another study’s methodology or result. For example, you wouldn’t quote an author who wrote that ‘no significant differences were found’, as these words aren’t relevant. What is relevant is that the authors didn’t find a difference. For this reason, quotes are more often derived from Introductions, Discussions, and Conclusions than from Methodology and Results sections.

Read more here.

When is a sentence paraphrased enough so I don’t plagiarize?

First things first: paraphrasing isn’t a quick fix to avoid plagiarizing. To make sure you don’t plagiarize, you need to do two things:

  1. Cite No matter how much paraphrasing you do, you must always cite your sources.
  2. Paraphrase thoroughly Even when you cite, you’ll need to change the wording so that it isn’t too similar to the original source. This is because the original wording belongs to the author, and you cannot copy someone else’s words unless you use a direct quotation (“...”).

There is no commonly agreed notion of what is ‘sufficient’ paraphrasing. In general, the wording should be yours. To get there, it helps to take some distance from the source: read it, take your eyes off it, and then write down the gist in your own words. It’s fine if your words overlap with those of the original - you are trying to communicate the same message, after all.

This section and this page each give examples of paraphrases that are good and bad (too close to the original).

Is there a way to automatically paraphrase my sentences?

Yes, there are plenty of tools available online. Unfortunately, many of them use words in their paraphrases that are not suitable for academic writing (like replacing ‘issue’ with ‘thing’).

Writefull offers an automated Paraphraser that has been trained on academic papers - just like all of Writefull’s tools. Thanks to this, the rephrasings you get are suitable for essays, papers, theses, and other academic texts. You can access the Paraphraser in Writefull for Word, Writefull for Overleaf, and from our website.

What’s the best paraphrasing tool?

For academic writing, Writefull’s Paraphraser is your best choice. It uses an AI model that has been trained on published papers. Thanks to this, the paraphrases it gives are suitable for academic language - so you don’t have to worry about informal words making their way to your sentences.

If you use the Paraphraser on our website, you also get to choose the level of paraphrasing you want: from low (for few changes) to high (for the most changes). The ‘high’ level changes sentences not only in terms of words and phrases, but also in terms of word order. And as you can generate as many paraphrases as you want, you can easily combine paraphrases to get to your perfect sentence.

You can access the Paraphraser in Writefull for Word, Writefull for Overleaf, and from our website.

What are quick ways to paraphrase a sentence?

You can find some useful tips here to help you paraphrase sentences quickly. The quickest paraphrasing technique is to replace words, but note that only changing a few words in a sentence often isn’t enough. A proper paraphrase requires more changes, like in word order.

Using an automated paraphrasing tool can help. For academic writing, Writefull’s Paraphraser is the best. It uses an AI model that has been trained on published papers. Thanks to this, it gives paraphrases that use academic language. You can access the Paraphraser in Writefull for Word, Writefull for Overleaf, and from our website.

What are the risks of paraphrasing in academic writing?

Many students and researchers see paraphrasing as an easy way to avoid plagiarism. By quickly changing a few words, they feel they can reuse sentences from other sources - often without citing, as they feel they’ve made it ‘their own’. With this way of thinking, they run the risk of unwillingly plagiarizing. This is because:

  • changing someone else’s sentence does not make it your own: even if you’ve paraphrased a source well, you need to cite it.
  • paraphrasing requires more than changing a few words. If you make minimal changes to a sentence, the sentence will still be very close to the original. If you copy an author word by word, even if this is a short phrase, you need to use a direct quote.

To make sure you properly paraphrase, read the tips in this section, and use Writefull’s academic-language Paraphraser to get to a good (and different enough from the original) sentence. You can use the Paraphraser in Writefull for Word, Writefull for Overleaf, and from our website.