Avoiding Plagiarism | Webster University

Avoiding Plagiarism

Avoiding Plagiarism Introduction

In the forms of plagiarism discussed in the previous section, each description suggested a common reason why or how various forms of academic dishonesty can evolve. If you are to avoid committing forms of plagiarism, knowing how they happen is a must. You and your situation are different from every other student, however. The methodology noted in the previous section is simply a possibility or a common habit, so be open to and aware of how these issues might occur in other ways or for other reasons. Once a major reason behind the issue is identified (either intentional or accidental), then you can work on correcting those behaviors or mindsets.

Forming Good Habits


The research process can be rife with difficulties. Not only is finding good sources a challenge, but reading through it all can be more time consuming than anything else in the writing process. The first thing to remember about collecting research is to be organized and to keep track of everything. Select and consistently follow a system that will become habit, using it every time, for every class and every project. The system that works for one student may not work for you, though, so be aware that finding a good system might take a few trials runs. Ideally, by the time you reach university-level courses, you will have found the method that works for you, but here are some tips and guidelines that can help avoid plagiarism.

  • Start fresh: If possible, you should begin the writing process not with research but with notes about what you know about the topic—without research. Ideally, the chosen topic will be one that you know at least a little something about (if not, then that’s probably not a good topic to use); write that information down. This could be something as formal as a rough draft or something more casual like headings or brainstormed ideas. The goal is to use whatever method is natural to have a record of what you know before the project even really begins. It might also be a good idea to save this file and e-mail it to your account. This will keep a time-stamped record illustrating your knowledge that can be used to distinguish prior knowledge from ideas acquired through research if you are unsure later in the writing process.
  • Log it: Keep notes of how/where sources are found. Note what database or what library system was used, what search engine was used, which search terms resulted in that source, and other important information. This information will be necessary for citation, but it will also become important should you need to look up the source again later. 
  • Be organized: It’s a good idea to keep sources organized with a system, something that separates the sources clearly but collects them in a convenient spot. Often, your first instincts might be to keep all your notes in one Word document, but this can lead to mixing up source ideas and also make finding/accessing the right material less efficient. Use folders instead. Have a “Project X Research” folder and then have each source clearly labeled and separated inside that folder. Alternatively, if you prefer to work in paper form, you can keep separate note cards or a notebook that can be separated into specific sections.
  • Organize by topic: A common way to gather materials is to keep them by source. For instance, you might keep all of you notes about Source 1 in a file. However, it’s important to consider how an essay is organized. Is it organized by sources or is it organized by topic? The paragraphs of an essay are constructed by major topics or concepts, so consider analyzing a source and taking notes organized by topic as well. After taking notes about the source, separate the notes by concept and then create different files for each: Topic 1, Topic 2, and so on. As you read and evaluate all your sources, you can then disseminate each source into those topic files. This will gather together ideas from a variety of sources that all fall under the same related topic, which makes them easier to use in the drafting process when it comes time to write a paragraph. This also helps you see more clearly which topics have little to no research support (indicating more is needed) or where one topic has too much (indicating it may need to be split into subtopics or excess research may need to be removed). Important: if this system is used, careful citation is vital.
  • Cite: Yes, cite, even in the notetaking stage. As you write down ideas from your sources, ideas and conclusions of your own might come to mind. It’s best to keep those ideas in a separate place, but sometimes the ideas just flow right there in the notes about Source X. If the notes clearly cite Source X’s ideas, then anything uncited should indicate the material is your ideas/conclusions. Further, citing in the notetaking stage serves as a reminder that the information came from a source; you may accidentally use information from your notes thinking that the ideas were yours when in reality it was a paraphrase of source material. Lastly, citing in the notetaking stage also helps you keep track of which ideas came from precisely which source. If these details are taken care of as you write your notes, it makes using the material correctly in your draft much easier.
  • Keep it simple: Don’t attempt to write down everything. Omit extraneous parts of the source and focus only on the ideas that can logically and directly contribute to your discussion. If you attempt to write down too much, then finding specific ideas or slogging through all those notes can be more troublesome than simply re-reading the article, defeating the purpose of the notes entirely.
  • Paraphrase: Ideally, notes should present the most important ideas in the source as a paraphrase of the source’s words. Your notes should be your words. Make sure the notes fully paraphrase the source, however; paraphrasing can’t be done halfway.
  • Don’t quote: As stated above, your notes should be in your words. If direct quotes of the material are needed, then consult the source itself (printing/copying the source can be helpful). Alternatively, keep direct quotes separate from the your notes—maybe have a separate file for that source’s direct quotes. If it’s absolutely essential that direct quotes be gathered with your notes, then you must follow standard citation and quotation practices: include quotation marks and end the sentence with a proper in-text citation (including the page number/section for where the quote was found). If you don’t do this carefully and consistently, then this is where you might confuse source words for your words—if you see it in your notes, you might (falsely) assume that it’s your words when it’s actually the source’s. Keep quotes separate from notes whenever possible.

These notetaking tips will ideally help you keep yourself organized as well as illustrate how to handle source material properly, even in the early stages of your project.


Any adult will understand the importance of time-management; this is something that most adults also struggle with throughout their lives (unfortunately). For many of you, this becomes a challenge unlike any other: juggling classes, study time, homework and projects is difficult in itself, and adding in work, family, and social responsibilities makes this a complete and utter nightmare. This means that you as a student, more than anyone else, must manage your time. The most effective way to do this is to make self-imposed deadlines—and stick to them. Understand that writing (or other projects) come in stages; even if we want to do it in one day (or more likely night), it shouldn’t be. A paper, particularly a research paper, should come in a few basic stages that span the course of several days or weeks:

  • Generate personal ideas: evaluate the topic and what you know about it.
  • Gather research: find a range of potential sources, then read and take notes about them—this is often the most time-consuming stage.
  • Plan the essay: this is where you will put together the personal ideas you started with, the ideas you learned from research, and the new conclusions or thoughts that everything combined lead you to. This can be done more formally, such as with an outline, or it can be done casually.
  • Draft the essay: enact the plan and actually start putting ideas into full sentences and paragraphs. If you organized your materials by topic, then the basic structure and major points will already be gathered together, making this stage more efficient.
  • Revise/edit: assess the draft and make changes as needed to improve the content and then to improve grammar and other mechanical details.

You need to take these stages into account and ideally set deadlines for yourself about what stages you want to accomplish when. This should be done as soon as the you learn about the project. Whenever the instructor provides the handout or reveals a major project, start setting deadlines immediately: I want X done by this date, Y done by that, and so on. Calendars will become your best friend, and with calendar/task apps, you should ever have a deadline creep up.

This of course leads to another problem with time management: procrastination and deliberate postponement. While most of you know you should make deadlines, doing so and sticking to them often simply doesn't happen. This is where plagiarism, either intentional or accidental, becomes a serious risk. When you put off assignments or think you can put off assignments, that's when you are most likely to commit plagiarism in some form—note how many of the types of plagiarism indicate time management (saving time or being rushed) as a major factor: over half of them. Finding sources, handling sources properly, and writing an effective essay all take time. If you overcome your desire to procrastinate and devote adequate time to the appropriate stages to a project you will fall into unintentional or accidental plagiarism less often and will also produce generally more effective assignments.

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Using Sources Correctly

Employ Quotation Marks

One of the most overlooked issues in using source material is a tiny piece of punctuation: the quotation mark. The quotation mark is all that stands between saying, “This is something someone else said” and this is something I say. Instructors assess projects with the expectation that everything inside them is your words, ideas, images, and collective personal work, regardless of form or medium. The only way the reader can separate your words from the source’s words is quotation marks. A citation will indicate that the idea was generated by someone else, but a sentence without quotation marks tells the reader that the wording was changed (paraphrased). If the wording isn’t different from the source and simply lacks quotation marks, this can get you into trouble. Why do this when adding two simple pieces of punctuation could have avoided the whole situation? This can be a typing error, but often it’s carelessness. Any time you copy/paste or type material directly from a page, instead of putting the quotation marks in later, put them in first. By drafting ideas and using empty quotation marks as a placeholder for a quote to add later, then this mistake is quickly avoided.

Note: depending on the style guide of the project (APA, MLA, Chicago, …), the use of direct quotations may be encouraged or discouraged. For example, MLA is used for English courses and discussing literature—using quotes to illustrate a point about an author’s characters or words is probably a requirement. For APA, however, direct quotations are discouraged in favor of paraphrasing, to help illustrate your analysis of the material. Keep this variation in mind when using quotations in a project. Above all, though, keep direct quotations to a reasonable amount—over-relying on a source’s words/ideas weakens an essay.

Appropriate Paraphrasing

This is one of the most challenging aspects of avoiding plagiarism, and unfortunately it can often take a lot of work. To get a handle on paraphrasing, the first step it to understand that paraphrasing can’t be done half-way. A source’s words are either changed thoroughly or they aren’t. This total re-statement of the source’s words needs to happen on two levels:

  1. Word choice—most of you understand that the words of the source need to be changed in a paraphrase. However, where you might get confused is the amount of change that needs to take place. It’s not enough to change just one or two key words. It’s not enough to change most of the words. The entire passage needs to be re-worded with phrases and vocabulary choices that are normal for you. Naturally, there are some exceptions to this: basic words that are required by grammar that don’t have easy alternatives (a, the, and, but), proper nouns (names, organizations, places), dates or other numbers, and similar information that can’t really be presented naturally in different words. These exceptions shouldn’t occur that often, though, so be aware that nearly everything else in the passage will need to change completely. In this process, you must also change the wording logically and grammatically. If words are selected that are not quite appropriate to the meaning or that don’t fit with the style/vocabulary of the rest of the paper, then the paraphrase will either be awkward or inappropriate. This is why simply dropping in synonyms or using a thesaurus can get you into trouble—see the example in the next section for an illustration of this point.
  2. Sentence structure—this is an aspect of paraphrasing that is frequently overlooked. Changing the word choice (for instance, switching “effectively” to “accurately”) is something most of you understand can be done when paraphrasing. However, leaving the structure of the sentence the same is not effective source use and does constitute an integrity issue. Compare these two sentences:

Original source: Issues in academic integrity plague universities and schools.

Incorrect use: Concerns in scholarly honesty afflict educational facilities.

This sentence is problematic in a few ways. First, read the “incorrect” sentence: Concerns in scholarly honesty afflict educational facilities. Does that sentence flow naturally and effectively? Not particularly (see the word choice section). More importantly, while the word choice has changed, the basic structure of the sentence is identical. Keeping the same sentence structure and simply changing the word choice of key parts still falls under the umbrella of academic dishonesty, particularly because the meaning is identical in both sentences. This imitates or maintains the writing style and structure chosen by the original author, and imitating style can be just as problematic as word choice. What is most problematic with this type of inadequate paraphrasing, though, is that this use of source material doesn’t demonstrate your understanding of the concept; a paraphrase must move away from identical meaning and convey the overall concept in a way that demonstrates how the point is relevant to your discussion. Only when you can fully place the idea into a sentence of your own creation will you illustrate your understanding of the point. Synonym replacement doesn’t achieve this.

To avoid improper paraphrasing in an assignment, both of these measures must be met. A common reason that paraphrasing isn’t done appropriately (aside from not changing the sentence structure) is that you might attempt to paraphrase by staring directly at the passage you want to change. It’s extremely difficult to change a passage thoroughly while staring down the original; the only words in your mind will be the ones on the page of the original. A method of avoiding this is to read the material to be paraphrased. Then wait a few hours (or even better, a day). Sit down—away from the material to be paraphrased—and attempt to convey the idea from memory, without looking at the original. What is written should be phrased clearly enough but in your own style and word choice. Check the wording against the original to be sure that it’s different, though. Once the material has been paraphrased appropriately, assess how much of the project uses paraphrase in comparison to your own words/ideas—over-relying on a source’s words/ideas can destroy the integrity of an essay.

Citing Sources

Lastly, citing any and all source material in the essay (in the notetaking stage and in the essay itself) is the most direct way to avoid plagiarism. Direct quotes, paraphrases, or any other material taken from a source must be given credit. Consult the “Citing Styles” section for specifics. Otherwise, always remember: when in doubt, cite it.

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Examples of Correct Source Use

The following examples illustrate a number of appropriate uses of source material. First, look at the original, an excerpt from John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address:

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Source: Kennedy, John K. “Inaugural Address.” Writing and Reading across the Curriculum. Ed. Lawrence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. Boston: Little, Brown, 1982. Print. [Note: this citation and the others used in these examples are done in MLA style.]

Quoting the Source

As John F. Kennedy passionately proclaims, America "shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty" (76).

Why is this correct? The writer identifies the author in a signal phrase, encloses a direct quotation (the source’s exact words) within quotation marks, and provides a page number for documentation.

Paraphrasing the Source

In his Inaugural Address, John F. Kennedy describes how America will do everything in its power to make sure that liberty prevails (76).

Why is this correct? The writer has identified the author, has put his idea into her own words, and has provided a page number for documentation. The paraphrase completely revises the original wording and presents the idea in an entirely different way.

Quoting and Paraphrasing the Source Together

In his Inaugural Address, John F. Kennedy describes how America will do everything in its power — “pay any price, bear any burden” — to make sure that liberty prevails (76).

Why is this correct? The writer has identified the author, has put most of this idea into her own words, has enclosed the source’s words that she wanted to leave in within quotation marks, and has provided a page number for documentation.

Remember these basic rules to avoid plagiarism:

  • Enclose any and all of the source's exact words within quotation marks.
  • For summaries and paraphrases, put the author's ideas into your own words and do this using your own sentence structure—typically this will entail making the idea simpler or more straightforward than the original.
  • Correctly cite all direct quotations, summaries, paraphrases, or other borrowings from a source. This would include use of graphics, photographs, research data, statistics, and anything that is not considered common knowledge.

[Examples adapted from Teresa Sweeney’s Feb. 2004 discussion by Laura Hardin Marshall, Plagiarism Prevention Program Specialist, Sep. 2015.]

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Overcoming Challenges

Correct Misunderstandings

One of the simplest yet more difficult methods to avoid plagiarizing is to correct misunderstandings or misperceptions. You might think that paraphrases don’t need to be cited or that an in-text citation at the end of a section will “cover” a whole paragraph of material. These misconceptions and others require that you educate yourself about what plagiarism is; being here shows that you’re on this road already. This education process could be about how to use source material or something as basic as what the instructor expects in an assignment or project. The thing to remember here is that you are never alone—there are a variety of resources available to you that can get these misunderstandings addressed. Most important is the instructor. If you aren't sure if the instructor requires citation (or what citation style) or if using a certain source is acceptable, ask the instructor. They will be much happier to answer questions than to get a project that’s plagiarized. Otherwise, there are plenty of other resources you can consult, such as the Writing Center or the library. Check out the university's student resources to find the right help.

Easing Pressures

Sometimes plagiarism (either intentionally or accidentally) occurs due to various types of pressures, academic and otherwise: the pressure to succeed, the pressure to get good grades, the pressure to generate new ideas, the pressure to avoid academics (from work or peers), and more. These pressures often play hand in hand with time management. The pressure to do well in one class will conflict with the time it takes to do well in another (or in all). As noted earlier, it is important to remember here is that you are never alone—there are a variety of resources available to you that can help alleviate some of these pressures or to provide you with the tools to manage them more effectively. Check out the university's student resources to find the right help.

Avoiding Avoidance & Resisting Temptation

A challenge many people face is procrastination. Another aspect of avoidance, though, is a little bit trickier: cutting corners. A common saying we’ve all probably heard is to “work smarter, not harder.” This philosophy can inform our lives in a positive way—it encourage us to find more efficient, better methods of doing things and can generate creativity (developing new products or techniques). However, this philosophy also has a dangerous negative side—in this case, it can encourage you to work in ways that generate results expediently, which doesn’t necessarily mean they are done properly or honestly. Self-plagiarism is a prime example of this: I can avoid doing extra work by simply reusing an old paper, right? However, reusing work for another class or in another academic situation is dishonest. Avoiding additional work simply because it’s easier often leads to plagiarism.

This of course leads to deliberate academic dishonesty. Students might consider intentionally presenting another's work as their own, either in small doses of source material or through entire projects. Unfortunately, this form of plagiarism can be hard to discourage or provide helpful alternatives for. Students who deliberately set out to fabricate their work (either in small pieces or full scale) do so knowing that it’s wrong. By taking short cuts and avoiding the work, students lose out on important parts of the education process or construct work that is isn’t up to university standards (bear in mind that what can be found on the internet isn’t always good). Another helpful thing to keep in mind is that an education in a particular field is also designed to help students succeed in that field. If students take the easy route, it prevents them from learning. See Webster University's Code of Conduct and Academic Honesty Policy in the Student Handbook for more information.


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