In a research paper, you have to come up with your own original ideas while at the same time making reference to work that's already been done by others. But how can you tell where their ideas end and your own begin? What's the proper way to integrate sources in your paper? If you change some of what an author said, do you still have to cite that author?
Confusion about the answers to these questions often leads to plagiarism. If you have similar questions or are concerned about preventing plagiarism, we recommend using the checklist below.
Planning Your Paper
Consult with Your Instructor
Have questions about plagiarism? If you can't find the answers on our site or are unsure about something, you should ask your instructor. He or she will most likely be very happy to answer your questions. You can also check out the guidelines for citing sources properly. If you follow them and the rest of the advice on this page, you should have no problems with plagiarism.
Plan Your Paper
Planning your paper well is the first and most important step you can take toward preventing plagiarism. If you know you are going to use other sources of information, you need to plan how you are going to include them in your paper. This means working out a balance between the ideas you have taken from other sources and your own, original ideas. Writing an outline or coming up with a thesis statement in which you clearly formulate an argument about the information you find will help establish the boundaries between your ideas and those of your sources.
Take Effective Notes
One of the best ways to prepare for a research paper is by taking thorough notes from all of your sources so that you have much of the information organized before you begin writing. On the other hand, poor note-taking can lead to many problems-- including improper citations and misquotations, both of which are forms of plagiarism! To avoid confusion about your sources, try using different colored fonts, pens, or pencils for each one, and make sure you clearly distinguish your own ideas from those you found elsewhere. Also, get in the habit of marking page numbers, and make sure that you record bibliographic information or web addresses for every source right away-- finding them again later when you are trying to finish your paper can be a nightmare!
Writing Your Paper
When in Doubt, Cite Sources
Of course you want to get credit for your own ideas. And, you don't want your instructor to think that you got all of your information from somewhere else. But if it is unclear whether an idea in your paper really came from you, or whether you got it from somewhere else and just changed it a little, you should always cite your source. Instead of weakening your paper and making it seem like you have fewer original ideas, this will actually strengthen your paper by:
- showing that you are not just copying other ideas but are processing and adding to them,
- lending outside support to the ideas that are completely yours, and
- highlighting the originality of your ideas by making clear distinctions between them and ideas you have gotten elsewhere
Also see: how to cite sources properly
Make it Clear Who Said What
Even if you cite sources, ambiguity in your phrasing can often disguise the real source of any given idea, causing inadvertent plagiarism. Make sure when you mix your own ideas with those of your sources that you always clearly distinguish them. If you are discussing the ideas of more than one person, watch out for confusing pronouns. For example, imagine you are talking about Harold Bloom's discussion of James Joyce's opinion of Shakespeare, and you write: "He brilliantly portrayed the situation of a writer in society at that time." Who is the "He" in this sentence? Bloom, Joyce, or Shakespeare? Who is the "writer": Joyce, Shakespeare, or one of their characters? Always make sure to distinguish who said what, and give credit to the right person.
Know How to Paraphrase
A paraphrase is a restatement in your own words of someone else's ideas. Changing a few words of the original sentences does NOT make your writing a legitimate paraphrase. You must change both the words and the sentence structure of the original, without changing the content. Also, you should keep in mind that paraphrased passages still require citation because the ideas came from another source, even though you are putting them in your own words.
The purpose of paraphrasing is not to make it seem like you are drawing less directly from other sources or to reduce the number of quotations in your paper. It is a common misconception among students that you need to hide the fact that you rely on other sources. Actually it is advantageous to highlight the fact that other sources support your own ideas. Using quality sources to support your ideas makes them seem stronger and more valid. Good paraphrasing makes the ideas of the original source fit smoothly into your paper, emphasizing the most relevant points and leaving out unrelated information.
Learn how to paraphrase properly.
Analyze and Evaluate Your Sources
Not all sources on the web are worth citing-- in fact, many of them are just plain wrong. So how do you tell the good ones apart? For starters, make sure you know the author(s) of the page, where they got their information, and when they wrote it (getting this information is also an important step in avoiding plagiarism!). Then you should determine how credible you feel the source is: how well they support their ideas, the quality of the writing, the accuracy of the information provided, etc. We recommend using the "Web Page Evaluation Criteria" available through New Mexico State University's website.
Many universities use Cite Them Right by Richard Pears and Graham Shields as their referencing standard. This easy-to-use book will enable you to reference just about anything from a tweet to an online journal to a television show. Cite Them Right has also been re-envisaged as a user-friendly online platform, Cite Them Right Online which your university may subscribe to. Ask in the library to find out if you have access!
More information, tips and advice can be found in this section.
What is referencing?
Referencing is the process of acknowledging the sources you have used in writing your essay, assignment or piece of work. It allows the reader to access your source documents as quickly and easily as possible in order to verify, if necessary, the validity of your arguments and the evidence on which they are based.
You identify sources by citing them in the text of your assignment (called citations or in-text citations) and referencing them at the end of your assignment (called the reference list or end-text citations).
The difference between reference lists and bibliographies
The reference list only includes the sources cited in your text. It is not the same thing as a bibliography, which uses the same referencing style, but also includes all material (for example, background readings) used in the preparation of your work.
To reference successfully, it is essential that, as a matter of course, you systematically note down full details of author, date, title and publication details of any material you use at the time you use it. For web pages, e-journals and ebooks, write down the url address and the date that you accessed the source. Besides being good academic practice, this ensures that you do not have the problem of trying to find sources you may have used weeks or months previously.
What's the benefit of accurate referencing?
By referring to the works of established authorities and experts in your subject area, you can add weight to your comments and arguments. This helps to demonstrate that you have read widely, and considered and analysed the writings of others. Remember, good referencing can help you attain a better grade or mark (often between five and ten percent of the total). Most importantly, good referencing is essential to avoid any possible accusation of plagiarism.
What is plagiarism?Plagiarism is a term that describes the unacknowledged use of someone's work. This includes material or ideas from any (published or unpublished) sources, whether print, web-based (even if freely available) or audiovisual. Using the words or ideas of others without referencing your source would be construed as plagiarism and is a very serious academic offence. At the end of the day, it is regarded as stealing intellectual property.
The following are considered forms of plagiarism:
- Passing off as your own a piece of work that is partly or wholly the work of another student
- Citing and referencing sources that you have not used
- Quoting, summarising or paraphrasing material in your assignment without citing the original source
- 'Recycling' a piece of your own work that you have previously submitted for another module or course (i.e. self-plagiarism).
How can you avoid plagiarism?
In many cases, students who find themselves accused of plagiarising often have done so unintentionally. Poor organisation and time management, as well as a failure to understand good academic practice, are often to blame. You might therefore find it helpful to note the following points:
- Manage your time and plan your work – ensure that you have enough time to prepare, read and write
- When paraphrasing an author's text, ensure that you use your own words and a sentence structure sufficiently different from the original text
- In your notes, highlight in colour/bold any direct quotations you want to use in your assignment - this will help to ensure you use quotation marks with an appropriate reference when you are writing up your work
- Allow enough time to check your final draft for possible referencing errors or omissions: for example, check that all your in-text citations have a corresponding entry in your reference list, and vice versa
- Save all your notes, files, printouts and so on until you receive your final mark or grade.
What is common knowledge?
In all academic or professional fields, experts regard some ideas as common knowledge. This is generally defined as facts, dates, events and information that are expected to be known by someone studying or working in a particular field. The facts can be found in numerous places and are likely to be known by many people: for example, that Margaret Thatcher was a British prime minister. Such information does not generally have to be referenced.
However, as a student you may only have just started to study a particular subject, so the material you are reading may not yet be common knowledge to you. In order to decide if the material you want to use in your assignment constitutes common knowledge, you need to ask yourself the following questions:
- Did I know this information before I started my course?
- Did this information/idea come from my own brain?
- If the answer to either or both of the questions is 'no', then the information is not common knowledge to you.
- In these cases you need to cite and reference your source(s).
This content was written by Richard Pears and Graham Shields, authors of Cite Them Right.
The six-point code
To make it easier for you to decide exactly when you need to cite, use the following simple six-point code. This is another of those notes worth sticking to the side of your computer screen or pinning to the notice board above your desk. Wherever you keep it, make sure it’s just a glance away.
When to cite:
- Distinctive ideas
Whenever the ideas or opinions are distinctive to one particular source.
- Distinctive structure or organising strategy
Even though you may have put it into your own words, if the author has adopted a particular method of approaching a problem, or there is a distinctive intellectual structure to what’s written, for example to an argument or to the analysis of a concept, then you must cite the source.
- Information or data from a particular source
If you’ve gathered information from a source in the form of facts, statistics, tables and diagrams, you will need to cite the source, so your readers will know who gathered the information and where to find it.
- Verbatim phrase or passage
Even a single word, if it is distinctive to your author’s argument. You must use quotation marks and cite the source.
- If it’s not common knowledge
Whenever you mention some aspect of another person’s work, unless the information or opinion is widely known, you must cite the source, so your readers can follow it up.
- Whenever in doubt, cite it!
It will do no harm, as long as you’re not citing just to impress the examiner in the mistaken belief that getting good grades depends upon trading facts, in this case references, for marks.
How to cite a reference
You now know when to cite a reference, but you also need to know how to cite the reference correctly. Different subjects will cite references using different systems, but there are two main methods:
The Harvard System
- Watts (1999) offers suggestions about how to prepare for university.
- It has been found by Holmes and Watkins (2000), that criminals are …
- This module is no longer offered (Smith, 2004).
- If you use the Harvard system in the main body of your work, you will be expected to cite your references in full in your bibliography.
Footnotes are flagged in the main body of the text by a number and then the reference written in full at the bottom of the corresponding page. For example:
‘….and so it was thought that, “A new feeling came into existence, a sense that people had become separated from nature.”’ 1
If the quote is from a book, the citation should follow:
Author surname,initial(s)/ Title of book/ (Publisher/ Place of publication)/ Page number
Peck J and Coyle M, Literary Terms and Criticism, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), p.70
If it were a journal article, you would cite:
Author surname, initial(s)/ ‘Title of article’ in Journal title/ Volume number (Issue number)/ (Year)/Page number
Peck J and Coyle M, “Romantic poetry” in Literary Terms and Criticism, 4 (1) (2002), p.70
Endnotes should be referenced in exactly the same way except they are found all together at the end of a chapter or at the end of the book.
For electronic sources, give the web page address and the date you downloaded the information. You should also cite the name of the reference and the original source if you have this information.
Once you are clear about this, all you are left with is how to eradicate from your work the accidental cases of plagiarism, focussing on organisation and processing.
Most of these are due to poor organisation. Many of us leave ourselves inadequate time to get our work done, so we rush research and note taking and in the process blend the ideas of our authors into our own, not knowing which are which. Inevitably when we come to write we pass them all off as our own. There are, therefore, simple things you can do to avoid this.
The first is obvious: leave enough time so you don’t rush your work. Make sure you have broken the task up into distinct stages (interpreting the essay question, research, planning, writing, and revision) and you have given enough time for each with time between them for your mind to process the ideas effectively. To make absolutely sure give yourself 25% more time that you think you need. As you complete each assignment you will be able to judge for yourself whether this is too much or too little. (See Chapters 19 and 20 in How to Write Better Essays).
- Record the details
Put the details of the text you’re using clearly at the top of the first page of your notes: the author’s name, the title of the text, page numbers, and the date of publication. Not only will this save you a great deal of time and stress in trying to track down a reference long after you have used it, but it will be an obvious reminder that the ideas you’re noting are someone else’s and may need citing.
- Separate your own ideas from your author’s
This can be done quite simply. For example, you could just put the material you borrow from your sources in a different colour, or on different sheets of paper, or even in different computer files.
But organisation is just one part of the remedy. Once you’ve organised your work you’re still left with problems that arise from the way you do your research.
- Active processing
The simple answer here is to avoid all passive, surface-level processing in which you merely read for understanding, note accurately what the author says, and then reproduce it word for word in your work. If you can avoid studying when you’re tired and break up your study sessions into manageable blocks of no more than two hours, then you are likely to avoid lapsing into passive, uncritical processing of the material.
Instead process the material actively. In other words, structure what you read by analysing it into key points and sub-points, and criticise and evaluate it, rather than just passively accept what you read. In this way you will free yourself from being dictated by the author as to what is most important in what you read. You yourself will decide what should be noted and this will be dictated by the questions you, not the author, have already decided are most important.
As a result you will probably borrow less, because you can see it is not as important as you might otherwise have thought, and you will integrate it within your own thinking, so that you impose your own distinctive organisation and structure on it. (See Chapter 13 of How to Write Better Essays).
- Interpret the question
However, to do this effectively you must have clear in your mind the key issues you want to explore in the text and the questions to which you want answers. This means you must in the first stage of essay writing have analysed the implications of the essay question you are tackling. This way you reveal not only the questions you want the text to answer, but also what you yourself already know about the issues. Armed with this you’re less likely to be dictated to by your authors and adopt their ideas wholesale. (See Chapters 3 to 8 in How to Write Better Essays).
- Break the text up into manageable units
Still, it’s all too easy to say don’t be dictated to by the authors you read, but when you get down to it each author writes in a way best calculated to present the most persuasive account. He or she wants to convince you that their point of view is correct, and as you are less experienced in the topic your ideas are bound to be heavily influenced by what you read.
All of this you will know to be true from your own experience. So, do a simple thing to give you every chance of liberating yourself from enthralment to your author. Break down a chapter you’re reading into manageable units, which you can read, understand and then put aside so that you can take your notes without using the book. If the unit is of a manageable size you should be able to recall the key ideas and create the structure of the passage in your own terms. Don’t worry about details – you can always come back for them later. Be guided by your interpretation of the implications of the question and your own judgement, not the author’s, as to what is most important. You must allow your ideas to come through; you’re not just a sophisticated recycler of received opinions.
This highlights the problem from which many of our difficulties arise: how are we to let ourselves and our own ideas into the picture? Never read and take notes at the same time. You will fail to create sufficient distance between your ideas and the author’s, and you will find yourself merely reproducing them verbatim. (See Chapters 14 and 15 of How to Write Better Essays).
There is, of course, one element running throughout this advice: the importance of having the confidence to trust in your own ideas and your own abilities to express and develop arguments as well as anyone. Beware of assuming that there are just right answers, which the author has presented correctly. As soon as you convince yourself of this, there is nothing more you can do but copy them accurately. (See Chapters 9, 10 and 11 of How to Write Better Essays).
The content has been written by Bryan Greetham, author of How to Write Better Essays.Top