Patrick Power Library

A Student's Guide to Avoiding Plagiarism

What is plagiarism?

Simply put, plagiarism is stealing someone else's words or ideas and presenting them as your own without crediting the source. Plagiarism is considered a serious academic offense. Acts of plagiarism can result in penalties ranging from a failing grade to suspension or dismissal from the university and in some cases the loss of a degree. Yes, a degree can be withheld or taken away. See the section on Academic Integrity and Student Responsibility in the Undergraduate Academic Calendar of Saint Mary's University for more information on plagiarism and potential sanctions.

Plagiarism can take many forms

Plagiarism can be intentional (e.g., deliberately copying a friend's essay and submitting it as your own) or accidental (e.g., failure to correctly cite a source because of careless note-taking or citation skills). The penalties for plagiarism apply even if you didn't mean to plagiarize.

Other examples of plagiarism include:

  • Directly quoting or paraphrasing from any source without properly acknowledging the source. (Note: A source is not limited to a literary text such as a book or journal article. It can also mean: television or radio programs, videos, interviews, the Internet, computer programs, illustrations, statistics, etc.).
  • Failing to acknowledge an idea that is not your own.
  • Submitting the same paper for more than one class without the permission of your professors.
  • Downloading or purchasing a term paper from the Internet and submitting it as your own.
  • Falsifying a bibliography (e.g., making up citations or including a citation to a real source that you did not actually use).

Avoid last minute panic

Don't leave your assignment to the night before it's due! There's a reason why your professors assign the essay at the beginning of term - research takes time! Use your time wisely and start early.

Give credit where credit is due

Take careful notes. Keep information that is directly quoted, paraphrased, or summarized separate from your own words and ideas. Be sure to include all the bibliographic details (author, editors, title, publisher, date, page numbers, website addresses, etc.) you will need to document your sources.

It isn't enough to simply list all the sources you used in a bibliography at the end of your paper. You also need to acknowledge borrowed words or ideas within the text of your paper. Refer to a style manual for detailed guidelines on how to document your sources. If you're not sure which style guide to use, ask your professor to recommend one. A list of popular style guides can be found on the LIbrary's website under the Citations/Refworks link.

Tips and techniques

While the rules for documentation will vary between style manuals, there are a few basic guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Introduce the author(s) of the material you are using (e.g., According to Johnson; As Warner and Sullivan point out; etc.).
  • When directly quoting material, copy the information exactly as it appears in the source, enclose it in quotation marks, and cite the source. Longer quotations are not enclosed in quotation marks, but are indented and set apart from the text in a block quotation.
  • Cite paraphrased or summarized material. When you summarize (i.e., condense in your own words the main ideas of a source) or paraphrase (i.e., restate in your own words the passage from a text) you need to credit the source of your information. Even though you put the information in your own words, you still need to acknowledge the ideas of the original author. 
  • Be careful when paraphrasing material. It isn't enough to simply change a few words. To paraphrase properly you must rewrite the original passage using your own words and your own sentence structure. If you decide to keep any unique words or phrases from the original text, these must be enclosed in quotation marks. When paraphrasing, try using synonyms or related terms to reword the author's ideas. Change the order of ideas and the arrangement of sentences, but do not add new ideas or delete any important points. A paraphrase should accurately reflect the meaning of the original passage.
  • Use a footnote or a parenthetical citation to identify borrowed information within the text of your paper (be sure to use the format that is consistent with your choice of style guide).
  • Forms of parenthetical citations can vary depending on the style guide that is used, but a typical citation may include the author's last name, publication date, and/or page number of the borrowed material- e.g., According to one advertising executive, "commercials that feature animals prove over and over again to be the most persuasive and popular" (Johnson 217).
  • At the end of your paper, list all the sources you cited. This list may be referred to as Works Cited, Bibliography, or References depending on the style guide that you use.
  • You don't need to reference common knowledge (i.e., information that is known widely and that can be found in numerous reference sources such as general encyclopedias). Examples of common knowledge may include well known dates, such as 1492 when Columbus reached the Americas, familiar facts, such as the fact that Canada has two official languages, or familiar sayings (e.g., it rained cats and dogs). If you are doubtful as to whether or not a fact or idea is common knowledge, err on the side of caution and cite the source.

Better to be safe than sorry

Throw away nothing! Keep your research notes and keep careful track of all the sources you use in case you have to prove where you found your information. If using the Internet as a source of information, beware that web pages can disappear without notice. Always print a copy (or take screen captures) of the web pages you use in case you need to prove to your professor that the information did exist.

Remember, the point in documenting the sources you use is to show that you have done your research, and that you are familiar with the theories and ideas surrounding your topic. Citations also provide your readers with the information they need to find and consult the sources you used, should they want to research the topic further. While your own words and ideas should comprise the bulk of your paper, you do not want to avoid documenting your sources because of a fear of citing too much. Cite when it is necessary. If you are unsure as to whether a piece of information needs to be cited, it is better to cite it than risk plagiarizing.

Want More?

Try our brief interactive tutorial Plagiarism: What is it? to learn more about what is and isn't plagiarism, so that you can avoid it in your work.

You can also try this tutorial from Acadia University: You Quote It, You Note It!


Aaron, Jane E., and Bander, Elaine. The Little, Brown Essential Handbook for Writers. 1st Canadian ed.

Don Mills, ON.: Addison-Wesley, 1999.                   SMU PE 1112 A24 1999

Lester, James D. Writing Research Papers: A Complete Guide. 2d ed.

Glenview, IL.: Scott, Foresman, 1976.                      SMU LB 2369 L4 1976

Further Reading:

Harris, Robert A. Using Sources Effectively: Strengthening Your Writing and Avoiding Plagiarism.

Los Angeles, CA: Pyrczak Publishing, 2002.          SMU PN 167 H372 2002

Check out the following links for more suggestions on how to avoid plagiarism:

Avoiding Plagiarism and Paraphrase: Write it in Your Own Words
Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL)

  • Both of these handouts offer strategies on how to avoid plagiarism. Practice exercises are provided.

How Not to Plagiarize (University of Toronto, Writing Support)

  • Provides answers to frequently asked questions concerning plagiarism.

Plagiarism: What It Is and How to Recognize and Avoid It (Indiana University Bloomington, Writing Tutorial Services)

  • Provides tips on how to avoid plagiarism, how to recognize unacceptable and acceptable paraphrases, and defines common knowledge.

Writing Resources (Writing Centre, Saint Mary's University)

  • Provides information and advice on how to research and write essays.