5 Great Ways To Avoid Accidental Plagiarism

Avoiding accidental plagiarism is one of the golden rules of writing. It’s an easy mistake to make too.

With the best intentions in the world, it’s easy to regurgitate someone else’s words and inadvertently use them as if they’re your own, especially if you’re writing a large number of articles or referencing other people’s work. 

Accidental plagiarism is a common mistake that writers of any caliber can make, which is why it’s worth tackling the issue head-on. Then, you can better prepare and edit your work to avoid this mistake.

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What Counts As An Act of Plagiarism?

When we think about plagiarism, it’s fair to say that we primarily focus on “direct plagiarism,” e.g., when you copy (plagiarize) a section of writing word for word. This is the most common form of plagiarizing that writers are caught out for simply because it’s obvious. 

However, according to Bowdoin College, and several other sources, the below examples are the common types of plagiarism:

  • Direct or intentional plagiarism
  • Self-plagiarism
  • Mosaic plagiarism
  • Accidental/unintentional plagiarism

Three out of the four of these can be argued as deliberate attempts to cheat the system when submitting work, whereas accidental plagiarism occurs without the writer being aware of their mistake. 

You may have read a valuable piece of information and then paraphrased it in a way that it is structurally similar to the original work. Despite being caused by accidental attribution, this is still a form of cheating which will affect your work, be it in academia or any other professional setting. 

How To Avoid Accidental Plagiarism

Considering the consequences of plagiarism can be, e.g. potential legal implications, it’s wise to take as many precautions as possible to avoid it. Here are five ways you can prevent falling into this common trap.

1. Keep Your Research Notes In One Place

One of the biggest problems writers have is organizing their research papers, which often results in a rush of information being added to the content. 

For example, if you’re writing a college essay and have notes randomly scribbled down in different places, you’re more likely to overlook sources for key quotes. This can result in you presenting the information as your own words. 

To avoid this issue, structure your research into a concise, easy to read document, ideally with all information in one place. 

For example, if you write many academic essays, consider using citation software like Papers App. However, you can just as easily use Google Docs or Evernote to store all your notes and sources in one file. 

Paper App
Paper App works well for academic essays

Better organization helps prevent you from becoming a plagiarist, and it will also improve your time-management, which can also impact your quality of work. 

2. Cite Consistently

Proper citation of a source shouldn’t be a new concept to any writer — it’s an intrinsic part of the writing process. However, the way a source needs to be cited can vary depending on the writing guide you’re using, meaning that you need to always follow the guide you’ve been given and/or instructed to use. 

A basic citation mentions the source’s name and when it was said, ideally with a link to that original author (or, for academic pages, a reference point). Pick a citation style guide and stick to it. 

If you need help, the Chicago Manual of Style is widely used and freely accessible.

Simply because a piece of information is common knowledge doesn’t mean you don’t need to cite your source(s). Keep in mind that quotations also fall into this remit. Use quotation marks whenever referencing an exact statement by someone else. 

The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition
  • Hardcover Book
  • The University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 1146 Pages - 09/05/2017 (Publication Date) - University of Chicago Press (Publisher)

3. Paraphrase It

When you want to paraphrase, use your own original wording.

To do this, try:

  • Altering the sentence structure of a quote and writing it out in your own words
  • Use synonyms or antonyms
  • Explaining what a quote, statistic or finding means in context

That said, ensure you cite the sources and present information in a way that doesn’t alter the meaning of the original source. Give readers a way of checking your arguments or research. If you’re writing for a formal audience, use more sources.

4. Try a Plagiarism Checker

Grammarly grammar checker
Grammarly plagiarism checker in action

Using plagiarism checkers is a solid way to double-check your work. Sometimes a system will already be linked to where you upload your work, such as Turnitin, which I used at university. 

But, if you’re not writing for an academic paper and rather for a journalism article, having access to your own checker is a worthy investment. 

You can choose from tools like Grammarly and ProWritingAid and check a piece of writing in a few minutes before publishing or submitting it.

5. Always Proofread

When proofreading, don’t stop at typos. 

Check your own work for missed attributions, inconsistent citations, and broken links. Also, ask someone else to proofread it as well. Our eyes easily adjust to our writing, especially if we’ve read through a piece several times. 

Consequently, writers overlook typos and spelling mistakes because we automatically read them as they’re intended to be seen — this is where an editor can help.

You don’t always need to pay someone to proofread your work. A friend, fellow student, or a colleague will more than suffice. Two sets of eyes are always better than one, so use this simple aid to your advantage. 

Accidental Plagiarism: The Bottom Line

If you want to avoid being accused of plagiarism, be mindful of how you present findings and research.

Laziness isn’t a valid reason for copy and pasting someone else’s work. Writing in your own words with a personalized writing style supported by correct citations or links is the best way to protect your reputation.

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  • Bryan Collins is the owner of Become a Writer Today. He's an author from Ireland who helps writers build authority and earn a living from their creative work. He's also a former Forbes columnist and his work has appeared in publications like Lifehacker and Fast Company.