How to Avoid Plagiarism

PlagiarismThe subject of plagiarism always comes up in my student workshops for Scientific Writing Skills.

It’s important to highlight this topic so that you can take steps to make sure you avoid it.

I originally wrote this article with students in mind (original article published by KirsopLabs, 4 Oct 2015), but it’s just as relevant to medical and health writing too.

It’s a problem because we understand that plagiarism is potentially a cultural issue.

Different cultures think of plagiarism in different ways, so we need to establish some ground rules.

What is Plagiarism in Academic Writing and Publishing?

That’s an easy one to answer.

Plagiarism is not the inclusion of text.

Plagiarism is the lack of acknowledgement of the inclusion of text.

It’s when you’ve included material that you’ve sourced – but either forgotten or omitted a reference for that source.

I’m afraid ‘forgetting’ is not an acceptable defence and you’ll find that you will be penalised heavily. I really must emphasise the importance of this.

It’s not wrong to include material from other sources. It’s only wrong when you represent it as your own work (by not citing the author/s). So when you’re submitting a written assignment, whether it’s an essay or a lab report, the words came from you, right?

Here’s a simple example:

You’re asked the question, “What is a rainbow?”

From WikiHow, you cut and paste a piece of text. If you don’t say where the words came from, that’s not good, that’s plagiarism. And here’s how it can be picked up by your college or university.

Narrative vs Factual

When you are writing, the style is narrative-oriented (you’re telling a story). When Wikipedia writes, they tend to be fact-oriented (not telling a story).


All universities will use plagiarism detection software nowadays, like ‘Turnitin’. For an experienced assessor, it’s quite easy to see when the tone of a student’s writing changes. Mixing your own writing with Wikipedia (or some other fact-based writing) jumps out at the person reading your report. All of a sudden your writing gets really formal and very fact-oriented, vs. very narrative-oriented. Often these different styles appear within the same paragraph.


It’s Okay to use “Quotes”

Part of good writing is the ability to research loads of material, in order to find the information you need. Sometimes you’ll find what you need, but want to use it exactly as it’s written in the original source. You might just like how it sounds and rewriting it doesn’t get the same message across as well.

In this case, then yes, it’s okay to use someone else’s text ‘verbatim’, but it has to be done legitimately. We do this using “direct quotes” and a citation. Here’s how:

Let’s say you read something and you can’t think of a better way to phrase it. Don’t just move the words around trying to paraphrase. Just put it inside “quotes” (quotation marks), and add a citation to acknowledge it.

For example, you might write something like this:

According to Wikipedia, “…. insert the verbatim text you want to use in italics between opening and closing quotation marks…” [1]

You reference (or acknowledge) this in your bibliography:

[1] www.(list the web page) or another source of the “quoted” material.

There is no plagiarism here. You indicate that it is a “quote” by highlighting the sentence or paragraph in italics and using quotation marks. You acknowledge the source by using the citation mark, [1].

This is the legitimate way to include someone else’s material ‘verbatim’.

Obviously, you must not overuse the “direct quote” within your body of work, but the point is if someone said it really well, then yes, you can include it. Just make sure you acknowledge it.


If you are a course organiser from an academic institution and would like to discuss how my workshops in scientific writing skills can add value, contact me at:

allison at rosswrite dot com



Thanks to Dr. Charles Severance at the University of Michigan for his discussion on plagiarism during his online ‘Python for Beginners’ course.

photo credit: #4IPC2010_wordle_tweets via photopin (license)

photo credit: Screenshot059 via photopin (license)


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