How to Make Sure You're Not Plagiarizing

Every college student has been at a plagiarism crossroad at one point or another in her life (yes, even you, Little Miss Perfection, who has never turned in an assignment a minute past the due date and who edits her research papers seven times before handing them in to the professor). In fact, we are constantly making the choice between correctly attributing a source and simply allowing it to slip by unnoticed.
Do I have to cite the source for a sentence that I completely rephrased into my own words? How will the professor know that this isn’t my original idea but that I read about it on a website a few weeks ago? Do I really need to quote something that everyone already knows is true? These are all questions that occasionally pop into our minds as we complete an assignment—not because we are dishonest or want to get by with the least amount of effort possible, but because the line between correct attribution and plagiarism is often quite blurry.
Here are a few guidelines to help steer you in the right direction the next time you find yourself a little bit, well, outsourced:
What Exactly is Plagiarism?

The Writing Tutorial Services at Indiana University defines plagiarism as “using others’ ideas and words without clearly acknowledging the source of that information.” This includes copying others’ work without giving proper attribution, restating someone’s idea or words without providing the source, and collaborating with other students on an assignment without accrediting his or her contribution, among others.
The term’s definition sounds pretty clear-cut, yet why do so many students find themselves within the murky waters of the plagiarism plague? “The internet makes all too possible ‘borrowing’ and weaving in full text from unacknowledged sources; the net's emphasis on ‘collaborative’ work can lead to witting and unwitting plagiarism,” says Boston University Professor and Chair of English, William Carroll.
So is the internet to blame for our uncertainty regarding proper source attribution, or is there another factor at work in this cloud of academic ambiguity? “I'm afraid students coming out of high school these days are particularly unclear on unacknowledged appropriations,” says Professor Carroll. Thus, part of the problem is the vagueness that surrounds the proper acknowledgement of internet sources; but another—arguably more important—aspect is the ignorance about accurate source citation that abounds among college students and those entering college.

Common Misconceptions

It’s not difficult to understand the concept of plagiarism from an objective standpoint, but when it’s 2a.m. and you are staring at the computer screen, halfway through your research paper, the situation becomes a little bit less transparent.


Here are four scenarios that might make you uncertain in your sleep-deprived haze, but which, when handled improperly, constitute plagiarism:
1. “Common Knowledge”
Just because you learn a fact that you think everyone else already knows about, this doesn’t mean you don’t need to cite it. Although the information may be “common knowledge” in the field of the course you are taking, it probably isn’t so for those who are not experts in that field. A plagiarism handout from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) suggests you ask yourself the following two questions to help you decide if a particular piece of information is “common knowledge”:

  • “Did I know this information before I took this course?”
  • “Did this idea/information come from my own brain?”

If you answer “no” to one or both of these questions, you need to appropriately cite the source of the information, as it is not “common knowledge” to you.
2. Paraphrasing
It’s tempting to think that no one will notice if you rephrase an idea that you found in one of the ten books you used for research. However, although it may seem harmless to rewrite something as long as you have put it into your own words, you are not the one who came up with the idea and therefore cannot present it as your own. When you paraphrase text, make sure you attribute the idea to the author and acknowledge the source at the end of the sentence.
3. Rearranging
You know how, when you’re dressing up to go out at night, you can style and rearrange an outfit to make it your own? Well, the same technique doesn’t apply to research papers. You can’t “restyle” information by taking phrases from a source and arranging them differently within your own paragraph: although the sentences may be in a different order than the original, they are not your own creation. Instead of rearranging the author’s text, either paraphrase it, or simply place the whole excerpt in quotation marks (and don’t forget to cite the source!).
4. Bibliography, Works Cited…What’s the Big Deal?
For me, one of the most painful steps of writing a college essay is making the bibliography. It seems pointless and wasteful to spend all that time arranging your sources at the end of the paper when you don’t even know if the professor is going to look at them. But trust me, the bibliography matters. “One year I was taking an on-line course and I forgot to include my works cited page in a PowerPoint,” says Leigh, a Quinnipiac University student. “The professor took fifty percent off. I was furious, but since then it has become one of the first things I tackle in a project.”