How to really avoid plagiarism in essay writing
(Last updated: 3 March 2020)
Today we are talking about avoiding plagiarism. Oh, plagiarism – the nemesis of so many a student, and so many a university institution. Students dislike it because it’s an easy trap to fall into; universities loathe it because too many students aren’t aware of what it really is and how to avoid it.
We get asked a lot of questions about plagiarism; what it means, what is acceptable, and what is not acceptable. Fortunately, we know an awful lot about plagiarism, and we’re here to clear up many of the misconceptions out there.
In this article, we’ll outline some of the main aspects of plagiarism and what you should (and should not) do when writing an academic paper.
What constitutes plagiarism?
What exactly is plagiarism? To help us understand the answer to this question, let's look at the Cambridge Dictionary definition:
"Plagiarise (verb): to use another person's ideas or work and pretend that it is your own."
The key in this definition is "pretend". In all of your essay and dissertation writing at university level and above, you cannot attempt to pass off any words, phrases or specific authors' ideas off as your own.
But what kind of behaviour is and isn't allowed under general university regulations?
Let’s start with the obvious; you cannot just buy an essay and submit it wholly in its original form to your instructor. This is using someone else’s work and is outright cheating. You also shouldn’t have a friend write it for you, or copy parts of your friend’s assignment. Not only can this get you in trouble, but probably your friend as well. Plus, who is to say that your friend is a better writer than you anyways?
Let’s keep going. Did you also know that you can’t resubmit an assignment for one class that you previously submitted to another? That’s known as self-plagiarism and it’s also a big no-no.
Universities around the world take academic integrity very seriously. In fact there’s usually a code of conduct as a part of each university framework which each student should read. Plagiarism is one part of academic integrity, and it’s something that you, as a student, should take seriously too. It’s important to remember that the rules you had in secondary school may not apply and the rules you have in your home country may not apply. The rules aren’t that difficult once you know them, but you have to actually know them in the first place.
So, you might be asking, why should you care? Well, first of all, if you are caught plagiarising, bad things can happen.
We’ll discuss the bad stuff first, before we work on how you can avoid it. At many universities, if you are suspected of an academic offence, which includes plagiarism, you first have to meet with your instructor. If you are found to have plagiarised, you could get a mark of zero or get referred to the Dean/Departmental Head for sanctions. For more serious issues there may be a tribunal and you could ultimately be dismissed from the school. Wouldn’t you rather be spending your time elsewhere, not dealing with an academic offence?
Instructors, professors and administrators are commonly told, “But I didn’t know I was committing an academic offence!”. Universities generally hold the position that it is your responsibility to know, so this is not a good excuse. We refer you back to the statement above where it says to read the code of conduct for your university. As a student, you are expected to know the rules, so pleading ignorance just isn’t acceptable.
All of this negative information is not meant to scare you, but is really meant to clarify what simply is not okay. It is important to also know what you can do. Here are some common points and questions and our best answers.
Referencing and citing
A piece of academic writing needs to be your own thoughts, but when you get to university level, your professors are going to expect more from you than just your own opinions. They are going to expect you to read, and then to incorporate that reading into your own writing to help you to formulate and support your arguments. This means you are going to have to reference other people’s work.
Why should I reference?
One of the main reasons why you should reference is that it actually shows your instructor that you have done the reading. Those who read should get credit for it. You want to show your instructor that you have actually read a wide range of sources and that you have been able to integrate those points effectively into your own argument. This is in addition to the fact that you should reference because sometimes the opinions you are giving aren’t your own. And if you are using someone else’s opinions, you should give them credit.
So, then when should I reference?
Many undergraduate students think that they should reference pretty much every sentence, but this is not the case. You should only include sources that you have actually read and that are relevant to your assignment topic. But that’s a whole other story on how to write an academic paper. In order to avoid plagiarism, you should reference if you use someone else’s idea in your assignment. You do not need to reference if what you are saying is common knowledge.
How do I know what’s an opinion and what’s common knowledge?
Common knowledge is a fact, so for example if you said, the capital of Canada is Ottawa, or that the Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo da Vinci, or that World War I began in 1914 or that smoking is harmful…you wouldn’t need to provide a reference. It’s easily verified or taken for granted. You need to start referencing when you move away from these generic ideas to ones that identify the authors’ position in some way. So if it’s someone else’s idea, you need a reference.
How do I reference?
The first thing you should do is determine what referencing style your department uses. Many instructors will tell you in your course syllabus, but if you are unsure, ask your TA or your professor. Different referencing styles mean different formatting rules, so make sure to read up on the one that is applicable to you. If you are unsure, there are some really good guides available on the internet and each referencing style has its own website with specific guidelines. Some are easier to make sense of than others.
In addition, there are different ways to incorporate other people’s ideas into your own work. Typically, you’re either using direct quotes or you are paraphrasing. If you are using direct quotes, you need quotation marks. You also need to know where the quote has come from – like the page number. Keeping good notes is important. For example, let’s say you are reading a textbook and you come across a passage that you think is really important. You then copy down this passage into your notebook. Three weeks later, you are reading through your notes trying to write your assignment. You come across the passage and now you incorporate that into your assignment…but you don’t reference it. That’s plagiarism. Careful note taking would have ensured that you maintained your academic integrity.
In addition, think about the formatting of longer quotes. Some referencing styles want longer quotes to be separate from the other text and indented further from the margin. Check which rules apply to the referencing style you are using in order to ensure success.
Paraphrasing means to read someone else’s work and then to highlight the main points in your own words. If you paraphrase, you still need to provide a reference. If you are highlighting a specific passage you will need the author, year of publication and the page number. If you are just generally discussing the work, usually just the author and the year will do. Again, check the guidelines of your referencing style to make sure you get it right. With paraphrasing, it is not OK to just change a few words and then say it is your own. You still need a reference. Always.
What should appear in my reference list or footnotes?
In your reference list or your footnotes, you should record the works cited in your paper. The general rule is, if the author appears in your paper, you should reference them in your bibliography, reference list or footnotes. If the author does not appear in your paper, but you have just done some additional reading, the reference does not need to appear. This is assuming that you have correctly cited the ideas in your paper to the appropriate authors.
English is not my first language and I am concerned that my essay will not be edited properly or have the correct grammar. Can I get help?
Yes! It is certainly acceptable to seek help with grammatical or structural concerns. There are a few things you should recognise, however, in relation to plagiarism. First, if you take your work to an editor and they make substantial changes to it, this can often be seen as plagiarism. This is because the original work has now been altered to a point where it is not your original thoughts, and so this can get you in trouble.
As for grammar, the rules seem a bit more unclear. Some universities will allow you to employ someone to check your grammar; others want you to state in your paper that you have employed the services of a proof-reader. Some universities reserve proofreading for graduate-level work and prohibit undergraduates from using this service – others are more flexible. So, here, we again suggest checking the regulations of your school before asking for someone to make changes to your paper.
You also should not write your paper in your first language and run it through translation software (e.g. Google Translate). This is generally considered plagiarism. This is because the words that you are obtaining from the translation software program are not technically your words. In addition to the fact that you should not do this, it also is not a very good strategy from practical purposes. Translation software is not yet at the stage where the sentences come across very coherent; the grammar is often still questionable. Also, when writing a paragraph, the way something is composed in a second language is not the same as the way it would be in English. So while plagiarism may be the concern with this strategy, it is generally one that should be avoided.
If I am completely lost with an assignment, can I ask for help?
Yes. Asking for help is great. There is no reason that you should try and struggle through an assignment all on your own, especially if you are really unclear about the topic. Yet there are certain people you should probably focus on more than others. First, ask your professor or the teaching assistant for help. They are going to be the ones marking your work, so they are a great first point of contact. On the contrary, you should probably not ask your friends for help, especially if they are in your class. This is because if you work with another person in your class on an assignment, this can become collusion. While you don’t need to know the finer details of this, it can get both you and your friend in a bit of trouble.
A solution to this would be to seek outside assistance. This can come in various forms. Firstly, you could find a private tutor – someone who can help you to organise your ideas and thoughts and explain what a good paper/paragraph can actually look like.
Secondly, using a professionally written model essay as inspiration for your own writing can be extremely helpful. Remember, you can't submit a model essay and try to pass it off as your own. But you can learn from it, paying attention to the language used, the way sentences and the argument are crafted, and how the essay flows (and more).
Be careful, though – the web is a minefield of poorly written essays and you may be asked to pay money for work that is very substandard. Not only will this be expensive and not provide much help, a bad essay could actually make your essay writing skills worse. Instead, use a reputable, trusted, British company, like us folk here at Oxbridge Essays.
We are meticulous in choosing the academic writers we hire. We ensure they have only studied at top universities and institutions, including Oxford and Cambridge, and that they are experts in their field(s). This means the work we produce is of the highest quality and academic standard. Choosing a trusted company like us will not only help you greatly with your studies, but will save you precious time searching for the right resources. What's more, all of the essays we write are 100% original, so you can be certain we haven't just recycled an essay from a stockpile; we tailor our service to every individual student's needs.
Universities generally have few rules about tutors, because while they want students to work independently, they also recognise that many students need a bit of extra help. This is where tutoring and support can be really valuable. It can cost a bit of extra money to get this support. But it may be worth it in the long run if you get a distinction score in the class, which eventually leads to more job opportunities.
Plagiarism may seem like a complicated issue, but it is really very closely aligned with honesty. The university you are enrolled in wants you to act with a certain element of integrity and wants to make sure that you are responsible for the work that you have created. Make sure you know the rules of the university at the beginning, not after the fact. Get help when you need it and give credit where it is due.