Stephen Covey, the motivational educator who wrote “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” says, “Trust is the highest form of human motivation.”
As writers, trust is your greatest asset. Your reputation is merely a representation of our trust and authority.
Unfortunately, there is no easier way to betray that trust than by committing plagiarism.
While most people think avoiding plagiarism is simple, it’s a little more nuanced. Occasionally, plagiarism arises accidentally, such as through improper citations or forgetting to add an appropriate link.
Furthermore, plagiarism is not just a concern of academia but can also be a major issue for any type of writing, including blog writing, journalism, sales copy, and even technical or medical writing from authors who originated an idea.
This guide will provide actionable strategies to avoid plagiarism and define what constitutes actual plagiarism.
What Is Plagiarism, And When Is It Not Plagiarism?
Merriam-Webster provides a more formal definition. We can define plagiarism as the deliberate act of copying one’s ideas and passing them off as your own.
However, it’s important to distinguish what constitutes plagiarism and what does not.
The borrowing of one’s ideas or even the elucidation of which does not necessarily implicate plagiarism if the writing is original or if they cite their source.
For example, if I write a short blog on the fundamentals of SEO in my own words, I don’t have to give credit or cite whoever the first person to coin the term SEO was to avoid plagiarism.
In any field, the sharing of ideas is essential to the development of its knowledge base.
For example, we can see Schopenhauer’s influence over Nietzche’s early ideas without the latter having to cite the former necessarily.
Additionally, anything considered common knowledge would not be plagiarism. If I said that Joe Biden is the president of the United States, I do not need to cite a source.
Furthermore, stating idioms, such as “crossing the Rubicon,” does not require one to source Caeser.
However, content written almost verbatim of what another person has written without proper citation constitutes plagiarism. So if someone were to copy and paste that last sentence into a blog, that would be deliberate plagiarism.
Additionally, even if the wording of a message is changed, but its ideas and message are almost verbatim what another person has written, this could qualify as plagiarism.
Why Plagiarism Is Bad
It almost doesn’t need to be said that “plagiarism is bad” is a common truism in our society and requires little further explanation.
However, there are both practical and ethical reasons why plagiarism is bad that should be reinforced:
- It’s a form of intellectual theft.
- It compromises the integrity and reputation of the writer.
- Ignoring plagiarism sets a bad precedent for all the arts and sciences.
- Plagiarism blunts your writing skills and makes you a lazy writer.
- It doesn’t feel good when it happens to you.
With that said, I don’t believe a majority of plagiarism instances arise out of some malevolent act but rather out of ignorance or haste.
Common Sources Of Plagiarism
Plagiarism is easily preventable using modern tools and by planning ahead. For example, many academic students plagiarize because they procrastinate on assignments or don’t know how to cite things properly.
Some common sources of plagiarism include:
- Deliberate theft.
- Improperly cited quotations.
- Poorly paraphrased research.
- Using a broken hyperlink to cite something.
- Not understanding that something isn’t common knowledge.
- Reusing previous work of your own without realizing or properly citing it.
To help you avoid plagiarism, I’ve outlined seven practical tips to adopt to your writing process to ensure your writing remains clean.
1. Make Notes When Citing Other Sources
If you’re like me, you probably open up a dozen tabs or so to research a topic just before you actually write any words.
In many instances, plagiarism can result from simply forgetting to cite something you may have posted to a draft or written down without realizing it.
That’s why it’s important to properly track all sources you cite, especially if you use any direct quotes in your article or need to cite a statistic or research point.
Keep track of things you’re sourcing by adding comments, highlighting, or hyperlinking to any material you are sourcing from other people.
When in doubt, if you’re unsure something requires a source, add a hyperlink or citation to be on the safe side.
From an SEO perspective, linking to authoritative third-party sites is considered best practice, regardless.
2. Add Citations Or Links In-Text
Next, we need to figure out how you will cite the sources you include in your document.
For now, much of academia requires APA citations, meaning you will need to add a footer after any quote from your source or a parenthetical citation, such as (Lieback, 2023).
For fields outside of academia, inserting a hyperlink over a portion of the anchor text related to the source can be an easy citation.
For example, if I was citing Zeus as the world’s largest dog, according to CNN, I could have used “Zeus,” “CNN,” or “the world’s largest dog” as my anchor text for the source link.
Finally, adding quotes and mentioning the author or source’s name can also be an adequate form of citation in more informal fields outside of academia.
For example, citing Steve Jobs as stating, “Stay hungry, Stay foolish,” is adequate without linking or creating a formal citation.
3. Paraphrase Information With Original Ideas
If you are not copying someone’s ideas verbatim, you will likely not need to source them, especially for more informal writing.
Ideally, I encourage my writers to try and paraphrase ideas but present them in a new light. Use the ideas you gather from your research to support your own ideas and conclusions, which should be drawn independently once all the facts are gathered.
Not only does this ensure your writing is clean, but it also makes you a more critical thinker.
One has to ask themselves, what is the point of writing about someone else’s ideas if you are not going to offer a new perspective?
Use the information you paraphrase as information, not gospel, to ensure that you always avoid plagiarism.
4. Undertake Rigorous Proofreading And Editing
The most straightforward way to avoid plagiarism is to catch it before you publish a paper. Taking the time to edit your piece and your citations will ensure that your piece remains clean and is not in danger of any ethical violations.
Again, check to see if the writing is original and that the writer derived their conclusions independently. This will make you a better editor as well.
5. Use A Plagiarism Checker Like Grammarly
Plagiarism tools are incredibly helpful for catching errors that humans can’t possibly perceive.
To test Grammarly’s plagiarism checker, I copied and pasted some text from a recent article on SEJ into the Grammarly editor.
Grammarly confirmed that the text I pasted matched what was published in the SEJ article. It even included a link to the SEJ article to use as a reference/citation for the text I pasted.
Screenshot from Grammarly, January 2023
Tools like Grammarly are great for finding most webpage content, but they may not work with text from books, PDFs, ebooks, or any content that hasn’t been indexed by search.
6. Plan Ahead Of Time
Avoiding procrastination will ensure you have adequate time to proofread pieces and draft your outlines accordingly.
This allows you to keep track of all of your sources, figure out how to cite them correctly, and help you avoid other errors.
7. Commit To Presenting Original Ideas
Finally, this point speaks to the ethos of why we write.
By resolving to be an independent writer and thinker, you will never have to worry about plagiarism. Most importantly, you will be much more successful because of it.
Avoiding plagiarism isn’t necessarily difficult, but it requires discipline and proper planning.
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