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Updated on September 16, 2014

Avoiding plagiarism

When you begin a course of study, you are warned not to plagiarise - and usually you'll receive some guidelines on plagiarism and how to avoid it.

Despite the fact that Universities offer this guidance, most students plagiarise because they don't understand how to avoid plagiarism. This lens is dedicated to helping you to avoid plagiarism by providing you with the tools and guidance you need to get your referencing right.

Avoiding plagiarism - resources

Here are some great resources for helping you to avoid plagiarism in your work.

  • The plagiarism checker website is full of plagiarism-related advice, lesson plans, a workbook and a lot more besides.
  • Plagiarism Advice is run by JISC, a registered charity and champion the use of digital technologies in UK education and research. JISC provides information and resources for both students and teachers on the topic of tackling plagiarism.
  • Wondering how JISC helps with plagiarism prevention? Visit their plagiarism programme page.

What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism is any of these things:

  • Taking someone else's words and making out like they are yours
  • Taking someone else's ideas and making out like they are yours
  • Rewording someone else's material but keeping their ideas without giving them any credit
  • Using a quote without putting "quote marks" around it
  • Copying large chunks of someone else's words or ideas, even if you give credit or put them in quotation marks (there's no originality in your work at all)
  • Giving the wrong information about the source of words or ideas you've used, e.g. you might use a journal and cite all the material that the journal author has quoted/referenced, even though you never read that material.
  • Changing others' words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit

Understanding plagiarism - York St John University students

"Genius borrows nobly".

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) U.S. poet, essayist and lecturer.

Referencing styles

You need to make sure that when you're writing essays and you use other peoples' material that you give proper credit. Your school, college or university will give you a guide on how they want you to format your referencing. For example, Harvard and Oxford/OSCOLA are really popular referencing styles. Here is a list of popular styles and links to guides that help you get your referencing right:

What do I reference?

As well as referencing material that you have found and directly quoted, you must also reference:

  • Any words that you have paraphrased (put in your own words).
  • Any ideas that you have taken.

It is these two concepts that most frequently trip students up.

So if you reference all the words you have found, whether used directly, paraphrased or just as an idea, will you avoid plagiarism? Not necessarily!

Let's say for example that I take JK Rowling's book "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone". I carefully reword every single paragraph throughout the book, changing the names, and perhaps changing around the scenes a little bit. At the end, I feel I've drawn heavily on JK Rowling's work, so I give her credit by including a reference to her book. Is that acceptable? No! In that case, I would have borrowed too much from her work for mine to be original. If you depend too heavily on a small range of sources, you may find yourself being accused of plagiarism even if you include a reference to them. The key is originality - if the work isn't sufficiently yours, it's not original and therefore plagiarised.

Plagiarism video

Here's a lighthearted look at plagiarism that Nina Paley created for her article 'Is Copyright needed to prevent plagiarism!

Nina uses Beethoven to illustrate how copyright has nothing to do with preventing plagiarism. The song says "always give credit where credit is due," but in many cases credit is NOT due. For example, how many credits should be at the end of the film? Read the article to get an idea of her point.

Choosing a plagiarism checker

One step you can take to help you spot if you have accidentally missed a reference is to scan your work through a plagiarism checker. This can help you detect any sloppy/missed referencing and sometimes where you haven't paraphrased something very well. Plagiarism software isn't a solid check though - it has a few main failings:

  • It doesn't pick up on most paraphrasing
  • It can't check against paper resources e.g books
  • It is always limited by what other resources it checks against - i.e. most scanners aren't able to check against paid journal databases.

The last couple of points are dealt with to some extent if it checks against a huge bank of other students' work. The more students submit their work to the scanner, the better it will get at finding matches to resources that it wouldn't otherwise know about, because snippets from these - quotes for example - will be included in the students' essays.

Which features are important to you?

Here are some considerations for you when choosing a plagiarism checker:

  • Do you want to scan against your past work? (eg other essays you've written in the past)
  • Do you want to scan against the internet? (most people do!)
  • Do you want to scan against journals, electronic books and other resources, for better accuracy?
  • Do you want to scan against other students' essays?

There are a lot of different plagiarism scanners and many on the web today are free, but not all incorporate all of the above features. There are also plenty that are paid but they don't work very well! In these reviews,it was the Small SEO tools free plagiarism checker that actually worked the best. Writecheck works well for finding matching content but doesn't show you where the content was found exactly, which can make correcting the issue a little tricky! Still, they have more resources than any other scanner.

Beware! Who runs your plagiarism checker?

Some plagiarism checkers are run by companies that own custom essay companies. They offer a free scanning service but then take your work and upload it to one of their websites - sometimes fairly soon after the scan and other times several months later. One of the most notorious companies for doing this is All Answers and their very popular scanner Viper does just that (you can read about it here, and verify this for yourself by visiting the Viper site and reading their terms and their page 'how do you use my essay').

Because some colleges and universities do a second plagiarism scan at the end of the course, this can lead to accusations that you have plagiarised your work, when it is found on the custom essay writing company's website.

So take great care when choosing a scanner that you use one that is operated by a reputable company who is not affiliated in any way with a custom essay writing company. Of note, Writecheck is owned by Turnitin - they aren't associated with any such company and they don't take any of your rights away when you use the Writecheck service, nor will it impact any scan that your university or college does later on against the Turnitin database.

Did you love this lens or hate it? Either way, let me know and I'll happily take your feedback on board for the development of this and other projects. Thanks!


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