How to Avoid Plagiarism: A Professor’s Top 9 Tips

Worried about accidentally plagiarizing on an assignment? A professor shares nine easy tips to avoid plagiarism — and what to do if you find it.

portrait of Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.
by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published May 4, 2022

Edited by Hannah Muniz
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How to Avoid Plagiarism: A Professor’s Top 9 Tips
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Accidental plagiarism is a real problem — and it can have major consequences for students. Punishments can include a zero on the assignment, an academic disciplinary hearing, or even suspension.

So how can students avoid accidental plagiarism? First, commit to doing your own work. If you start an essay with the intention to write it yourself, you'll automatically avoid the most serious types of plagiarism.

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Most of the time, students accidentally plagiarize because they don't understand how to cite material correctly or are confused about what counts as plagiarism. Sometimes students plagiarize because they unintentionally delete a source or fail to catch an error before turning in their paper.

Fortunately, you can avoid the most common types of accidental plagiarism by improving your research, citation, and editing skills.

9 Easy Tips to Avoid Plagiarism in College

You want to submit your own work, but you're worried about accidentally plagiarizing. These tips can help you avoid plagiarism and feel confident when you submit your assignment.

1. Know the Types of Plagiarism

Did you know there's more than one type of plagiarism?

Obviously, paying for a paper or passing off someone else's writing as your own both qualify as plagiarism — but so does failing to cite your sources, paraphrasing too closely, and even copying your own work.

Review your school's plagiarism policy, and ask your professor how to properly cite material so you can avoid plagiarism.

2. Research Carefully

When you research a paper, be sure to carefully note your sources. You should also distinguish between material that comes from outside sources and your own ideas and thoughts.

Consider this scenario: You're reading newspaper articles for a political science paper. You jot down notes about the recent election in France. But you forget to write down your sources. The next day when you sit down to write the paper, you incorporate material from your notes without citations — this can trigger plagiarism checkers.

You can avoid accidental plagiarism by taking detailed notes throughout the research process.

3. Organize Your Work

The transition from research to writing can introduce accidental plagiarism into your paper. For example, you might drop in a quote or paraphrase your research but forget to add a citation. Or you might accidentally delete the source and later fail to realize you didn't actually write that section.

You can avoid these forms of accidental plagiarism by taking a few simple organizational steps. Consider collecting your research in one document and writing in another. That way, you'll have all the material that comes from outside sources in your research document.

Additionally, always include quotation marks around direct quotes, even in your notes or research document. That way, you'll know to add a citation.

4. Cite Your Sources

Failing to cite your sources might be the most common form of accidental plagiarism. And a lot of the time, students cite improperly because they simply don't know how to cite sources.

Different academic fields use different citation styles, so it's easy to get tripped up when switching from APA to Chicago or in-line citations to footnotes.

To avoid plagiarism, make sure your instructor can clearly identify every source. Also, follow the class's policies on citation styles and bibliographies.

What if you can't find the source for a quote, fact, or figure? Start by retracing your steps to find the source. If that doesn't work, try to confirm the information from another source. If all else fails, cut the information from your essay.

5. Paraphrase Cautiously

Is paraphrasing plagiarism? It's fine to paraphrase as long as you cite your source. However, taking ideas, phrases, or even the structure from an outside source without any acknowledgment can violate plagiarism policies.

When paraphrasing, take care to put everything into your own words and cite the original source. If you want to include phrasing from the original source, use quotation marks. When in doubt, include a citation.

6. Always Revise

Too many students write the last sentence of their essay and submit it without any revisions — and that can get you in trouble.

Read through your paper several times before submitting it. You might catch a missing citation or an area where you paraphrased too closely to the original source. Or you might find a quote that's missing its quotation marks.

Revisions are a great time to identify potential plagiarism and correct it before turning in your paper.

7. Do a Plagiarism Check

You can also submit your paper for a plagiarism check. Your school may let students upload papers to plagiarism detectors to identify any problematic sections. Alternatively, you can use a free plagiarism detector, like Grammarly or Chegg.

Running your essay through a plagiarism detector can highlight areas where you need to add citations or use quotation marks instead of paraphrasing. It can also give you peace of mind when you submit your paper.

8. Check Before You Submit

Did you drop quotes from sources into an earlier draft of your paper and add citations later? This can get you in trouble if you accidentally upload the wrong version of your paper.

Even if you've already revised your paper and used a plagiarism detector, double-check that you're submitting the final version of your assignment with every citation in place. As you do this, scan your footnotes for empty citations and look for blank in-line citations.

9. Understand Self-Plagiarism

Can you plagiarize yourself? At some schools, self-plagiarism violates the academic honesty policy. This means turning in the same paper in two classes or reusing your old essays could count as plagiarism.

Check the self-plagiarism policy at your school. When in doubt, ask your professor about their policy on self-plagiarism. In most cases, instructors prefer students to write an original paper for the assignment.

How to Deal With Accidental Plagiarism

It's better to catch accidental plagiarism before submitting an assignment. But what if your professor notices plagiarism in your work?

Accidental plagiarism often isn't malicious or intentional. Most professors understand that an incorrect citation is very different from buying a paper online. And most of the time, instructors will correct your citation or scrawl "Source?" on your paper rather than accusing you of plagiarism.

Still, it's important to avoid all forms of plagiarism in your work. Before the due date, consider asking your professor to review a draft of your paper to ensure you're following all citation rules.

And if you accidentally break those rules? Learn from the experience to avoid problems in your next essay.

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