How to Avoid Plagiarism

If you steal from one author it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many it’s research.

Wilson Mizner

Plagiarism is stealing
Plagiarism is stealing

Who is guilty of plagiarism?

Have you ever taken parts of someone’s writing without citing the source?

Have you ever used quotations without giving credit?

Well, we all probably have. It’s easy, simple to do and seems harmless. If you haven’t mastered the intricacies of English, the language of global communication, it may be tempting to plagiarize. This is true for both native and non-native speakers of English – my audience.

Plagiarism has, of course, increased dramatically with the widespread use of the Internet. In her book, Successful College Writing, McWhorter calls it “cyberplagiarism.”

It can take 3 different forms.:

a) “borrowing” information from online sources without acknowledging it,

b) cutting and pasting material directly without citing the source,

c) buying essays or papers online and using them as your own work.

Copying the ideas of others is not new. Two thousand years ago the Roman poet Martial complained about others stealing his poetry.

Plagiarism is not just a violation of another’s writing.  It’s also harmful to creators of music, videos, and graphics.   For example, songwriters commit plagiarism and sometimes get heavy fines if found guilty. Recently, the Marvin Gaye family was awarded a whopping $ 7.3 million for copyright infringment of a 1977 Gaye song by another singer (1).

Any way you look at it, plagiarism is theft — the stealing of somebody else’s ideas.

Plagiarism is dumb.
Plagiarism is dumb.

How to beat plagiarism?

So how can you avoid plagiarism or be more conscious of it?

The answer is simple. Learn and practice how to take notes, to summarize, to paraphrase, and to quote correctly.

Let’s look briefly at each of these skills separately.

Tip #1 Beating Plagiarism: Learn to Take Notes

It all begins with careful reading and good note taking. I’m pretty good at taking notes because I’ve done it all my life — as a student, academic and business person. In fact, I’m fanatic about it. I particularly enjoy taking notes at meetings and conferences or during webinars. See my article, The Art of Note Taking.

In my writing book, Write Now, I define note taking as “the art of synthesizing information and putting it in ways that you personally understand.”

One technique I use with my non-native English speaking students at college level is called the Two-Column Method.

  • First, divide a page – either on paper or in Google drive – into a large right column.
  • Then write down notes describing facts, key ideas and quotations in that column.
  • Next, write down keywords or questions in a smaller left column.
  • Finally, in a small block undernetath, write a summary presenting the main idea. Include the source as well.

More about summary writing later.

Here is a student example using the two-column method presented in an academic English course I teach. The student had to take notes on an online film review.

Film: “No Country for Old Men”

Keyword and questions

  • Unpredictable narrative
  • Breathtaking
  • Sanguinary film
  • Remarkably
  • Sharpest
Notes (key ideas and facts)A modern movie
Remains remarkably grounded in the everyday”
“Sharpest Coen Bros. film in years”
“Excruciating violence to ratchet up the tension”
“Shocks ’round every plot twist”
Review by Bob Mondello , art critic: A really great movie and even the best Coen’s Brothers film in a while.
The movie has a surprising narration and is remarkably authentic and realistic.
The violence keeps the tension high and shocks viewers at every turn in the plot.

Tip #2 Beating Plagiarism: Learn to Summarize

Beat Plagiarism
Beat Plagiarism

Summarizing is the art of stating the general ideas and main supporting ideas of a text in your own words.

Here are some techniques to keep in mind:

  • Practice identifying the writer’s thesis or focus.
  • Write the summary in as few words as you can.
  • Identify the topîc sentence or main idea of each paragraph in longer texts.

Let’s practice with an activity that appears in my blog post, “Summarizing: An Important Skill.”

Here is part of an article by Christopher McCormick entitled “Countries with better English have better economies” that appeared in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network.

  1. Read the two paragraphs below and practice summarizing them.
  2. Write down your own summary for each paragraph.
  3. Then choose the best summary for each paragraph from the list below.
  4. Finally, compare your summary writing with my suggested answers (at the end of the post).

How did you do? How is your skill in summarizing?

Paragraph 1:  New Opportunities

Billions of people around the globe are desperately trying to learn English—not simply for self-improvement, but as an economic necessity. It’s easy to take for granted being born in a country where people speak the lingua franca of global business, but for people in emerging economies such as China, Russia, and Brazil, where English is not the official language, good English is a critical tool, which people rightly believe will help them tap into new opportunities at home and abroad.

Paragraph 2: Economic Performance

Research shows a direct correlation between the English skills of a population and the economic performance of the country. Indicators like gross national income (GNI) and GDP go up. In our latest edition of the EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI), the largest ranking of English skills by country, we found that in almost every one of the 60 countries and territories surveyed, a rise in English proficiency was connected with a rise in per capita income. And on an individual level, recruiters and HR managers around the world report that job seekers with exceptional English compared to their country’s level earned 30-50% percent higher salaries.

Possible answers:

A. A country like Sweden has one of the highest performing economies because the government realizes the importance of English.

B. Studies show a clear link between knowledge of English and higher salaries in most of the 60 places studied

C. People around the world, especially in countries with  growing economies,  such as Brazil,  realize that  learning English will improve their chances of success.

How did you do? Check your answers at the end of the article.

Tip #3 Beating Plagiarism: Learn to Paraphrase

The skill of paraphrasing is more challenging to master than summarizing. McGarell and Brillinger, authors of Writing for Results, define paraphasing as a restatement of an original text in your own words. It could be a restatement of an entire sentence, part of a sentence, or one or more paragraphs, written in about the same length as the original.

It requires a high mastery of the language because you have to rephrase the vocabulary and sentence structure of the original version.  It shows that you understand clearly the meaning of the original text. Paraphrasing is a useful way for all writers, but particularly non-native speakers of English, to improve their writing skills.

Here is a good example of paraphrasing from Writing for Results, p. 71:

Original text


“To development psychologists, the study of creativity is necessarily anchored in the study of human development.”  Gardner, H. (1993). Creating Minds. New York: Basic Books, p. 31. Psychologists who work in the field of human development believe that any research into creativity must be situated firmly in the study of human development (Gardner, 1993:31).

Notice the 3 major changes made to the original text:

Original text


to development psychologists becomes Psychologists who work in the field of human development
the study of creativity becomes research into creativity
anchored becomes situated firmly

Tip #4 Beating Plagiarism: Learn to Quote

Another good technique to avoid plagiarism is to quote from other sources. In Write Now, I recommend using direct and indirect quotes to support your ideas.

Direct quote: Frank wrote, “I also use books, newspapers, scholarly journals and magazines at the main city library.”

Indirect quote: Frank said that he also uses books . . . and magazines at the main library.

Note the change in the pronoun and the verb. Notice I also use ellipsis (3 points) to leave out words that don’t change the original meaning.

You can use in-line or blended quotations:

Example 1: Mohammed Ali, a figure larger than life, once said, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” (within a sentence)

Example 2: “So how can we stop plagiarism or at least raise people’s consciousness about it?” I asked earlier in this article. (at the beginning of a sentence)

Keep in mind, however, not to use too many direct quotations. It weakens your writing. The goal in good writing is to seamlessly weave quotations into your text.

For quotations longer than 5 lines, you want to indent the text.


So learn to use these 4 plagiarism beating tips: take good notes, summarize, paraphrase, and quote properly. You need to work at these skills often and continue to practice them.

These tips may save you a lot of embarrassment. If you do plagiarize, you could fail a course at school, get kicked out of school, lose your job or, worst of all, damage your reputation.


Answers to summarizing activity
Paragraph 1. C, Paragraph 2. B


1. “Hit Single Plagiarized 1977 Song, Jury Rules,” New York Times (National Edition): B1, March 11, 2015.

“Plagiarism is stealing”: courtesy of by iosphere.

“Plagiarism is dumb”: courtesy of by 1shots.

“Beat Plagiarism”: courtesy of by emily9.

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