Plagiarism: What It Is and How to Avoid It

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Being a real wordsmith means that each time you pick up a pencil or sit down at your keyboard, what flows out comes from your own mind and heart. Sure, you can grab data if you need to. That’s the heart of research writing. But the concepts in the work and the way you express them aren’t anyone else’s. If the ideas, words, and sentence structure you put onto a page or into an electronic file are largely someone else’s and you don’t give them proper credit, then you aren’t writing. You’re committing plagiarism.

Plagiarism Defined

Plagiarism at the most basic level means you are stealing intellectual property and passing it off as your own. People usually think of this as direct copying, but lifting word for word is only half the definition. Ideas count as intellectual property. Even if you are putting something into your own words, if you don’t cite your source, then you are plagiarizing.

Importantly, if you are stating common knowledge, such as the fact people have 10 fingers, then you don’t need to cite a source, and you aren’t plagiarizing. When facts come from specific research, though, giving credit is necessary.

It’s not that bad to do, right?

Um, wrong. When you put your byline to what someone else has done, you are taking the credit for their work. That robs that person of the chance for proper recognition. In some cases, taking that credit also prevents someone from getting the monetary compensation they deserve. You also can look at it from your own personal standpoint: If people discover you’ve plagiarized, then you’ll lose credibility as an author. Lowered credibility translates to people not hiring you or accepting your manuscript submissions. That means no income. No income equals the inability to do basic stuff like buy groceries and pay your rent.

Then there’s the legal stuff. If the original writer figures out that you’ve stolen their intellectual property, then they can sue you for copyright violation. You might have to go to court and pay significant fines if this happens.

Preventing the Problem

Two little keys will help you avoid plagiarism. The first is to learn these beautiful words: “According to…” You also should know phrases such as

  • “As reported by…”
  • “[Name of author] stated that…”
  • “In their [year] work, [title], [original authors] claimed that…”
  • “A [year] study by [authors] found that…”

Use these phrases whenever you’re summarizing concepts and ideas, such as entire paragraphs or entire articles, books, and websites. Secondly, if you want to point out very specific parts of a work and feel the original authors said it best, then just use quotation marks around whatever they wrote.

More Information

A great online resource about plagiarism is This site gives an in-depth, layman’s-style definition of plagiarism and contains useful tools, questions, and even a plagiarism checker option (account and service payment required). Another great site is from the University of Indiana Writing Tutorial Services. This site provides excellent examples of what is and is not acceptable when relying on someone else’s work to create new content.