Online Writing Lab

Avoiding Plagiarism

Plagiarism is a word that often scares many writers, and rightfully so.  Plagiarism can lead to many negative consequences for a writer, particularly a student writer who can face flunking a class and/or expulsion from school.  Given these potential consequences, it is important to understand what plagiarism is and how to avoid it.

Most beginning writers think of plagiarism as the word-for-word copying of someone else’s writing.  While this is certainly a form of plagiarism, there are other forms of plagiarism that can also occur and are not as obvious.  Plagiarism can be defined as the intentional or unintentional use of someone else’s ideas, words, or other original material without proper acknowledgement.  Therefore, if a writer uses the ideas presented in a book, for example, and does not cite this information, this is considered plagiarism, even if the original wording is changed. 

The key to avoiding plagiarism is understanding when to give credit to another party for words or ideas through citation and doing so properly. The general rule is to document any and all ideas, words, or other original material that you are using. 

If you are in doubt about whether or not something needs to be cited, be sure to talk to your instructor or visit a writing tutor at the Aims Writing Center.  If your instructor and/or a tutor is not available, or if you are still in doubt, it is best to err on the side of caution by citing the source.  In other words, when in doubt, go ahead and cite the information. 

The following is a basic list of types of information that require citation

This is not a comprehensive list and should not be treated as such:
  • Words or ideas presented in a book, magazine, newspaper, song, TV program, movie, Web page, letter, pamphlet, advertisement, or any other medium
  • Information gained through interviewing another, whether it occurs in person, over the phone, through email or other electronic exchange, or in writing
  • Exact words or creative language that are quoted
  • The reusing or reposting of diagrams, charts, pictures, artwork, illustrations, or other visual materials
  • The reusing or reposting of any electronically-available media, including images, audio, video, etc.

In the end, the main idea is to document any words, ideas, or other productions that originated from someone other than you. 

The following is a basic list of types of information that DO NOT require citation

This is not a comprehensive list and should not be treated as such:

  • The use of your own ideas, thoughts, experiences, observations, insights, and/or conclusions about a subject
  • The use of your own experiments or research results
  • The use of your own artwork, digital photographs, video, audio, etc.
  • The use of generally accepted facts (for example: Violence causes many problems for society; air pollution harms the atmosphere; succeeding in college can be challenging; etc.)
  • The use of information that is considered “common knowledge” (see below for further explanation of “common knowledge”)

Common Knowledge

Determining if a piece of information is common knowledge or not can be tricky.  Common knowledge does not mean that all or most people know it, but rather that it can be found in a variety of places.  A good guideline to follow in determining whether or not the information is considered common knowledge is if the information can be found undocumented in at least five different sources, it can generally be considered common knowledge.  For example, if I am writing a research paper about the cause(s) of the Civil War, I do not need to cite the dates of certain battles, even if the majority of people do not know them offhand, and even if I didn’t know these dates before researching and/or writing.  These dates are common knowledge since they can be found in a variety places; therefore, they do not need to be cited.   On the other hand, the opinion of a historical researcher about the importance of a specific event during this time does need to be cited. 

Again, though, following this rule will keep writers from plagiarizing:  if in doubt, go ahead and cite.  The citation may be unnecessary, but at least there is no chance of plagiarism. 

Note:  For information on how to cite information correctly in a particular format, view the citing sources page on our website and/or watch the proper video on our videos tab.