How to Avoid Plagiarism in Your Essays and Research Papers


It will make you fail on all your assignments. It will make teachers harass you for being a liar and a thief. It will make you be suspended or expelled from your dream university… 

Won’t plagiarism make a great Halloween character? 

With all the spooky warnings and myths, students are appalled at the requirement to base their essays on the information from published sources while also avoiding plagiarism. 

Let us discuss everything you should know about plagiarising so that you learn how to avoid plagiarism in your essays and research papers once and for all.   

What is Plagiarism?  

In the nutshell, plagiarism is presenting the words or ideas of other people as your own

There are 4 basic types of plagiarism: 

  • Direct Plagiarism: copy-pasting from an original source without giving credit to the author or putting original text in quotation marks;
  • Self Plagiarism: the practice of recycling one’s own writing for a new essay or research paper;
  • Mosaic Plagiarism (Patch Writing): not using a citation when borrowing separate phrases from an original source, changing the order of words or substituting them for synonyms, while retaining the original structure and meaning of the original text;
  • Accidental Plagiarism: citing sources not in a proper format, misquoting or misinterpreting the source, poor paraphrasing (patch writing).  

Although these four types are repeated every now and then, they give a bit distorted idea about plagiarizing, for paraphrasing and citing properly is not enough for avoiding plagiarism in academic essays. Here is another important rule to remember: 

Even if you paraphrase and reference correctly all the sources, but the borrowed ideas make a greater part of your essay or research paper (e.g., you do not provide enough inferences or explanation of how the information may be applied to the given context) – you are plagiarising. 

There is some confusion about this rule as professors have different expectations of how many novel ideas or inferences a student should present. Normally, these expectations depend on the assignment, the year of studies, and the professors themselves. Obviously, a thesis paper should have more original ideas and original facts obtained through research than a regular assignment or essay.      

Another confusing aspect of the 4 plagiarism types is that the fourth type and the very title of it – Accidental Plagiarism – seems rather ‘forgiving’. Don’t be misled by this! 

No type of plagiarism is acceptable in academic writing. While it is true that an instructor may excuse first-year students for ‘accidental’ plagiarism, they will automatically grade 0 or even refuse to grade a paper with no in-text citations or a Reference list if it is written by a more mature student.  


Can Plagiarism Detectors Help to Avoid Plagiarism?   

Yes, they can

Sometimes it happens that students cannot think of another structure to present an idea and make just slight changes. Or, after rereading the source for several types, they start speaking the author’s words without even realizing it.

Not to get stuck on one of such sentences, it is better to leave it as it is and then see what a plagiarism checker actually detects. Having your poor periphrasis highlighted in the report, you can focus on this very instance of unintentional plagiarism and correct it before submitting your writing for assessment.    

No, they can’t

Some students believe that the strategy explained above can work well to prevent plagiarism in their essays. Everything seems clear: you patch write your essay and check it with a plagiarism detector, paraphrasing any highlighted text – voilà – it is no longer highlighted when your teacher runs the check.

No detected plagiarism = no plagiarism, isn’t it?  

I have two bad news for you here: 

  • First, what ‘plagiarism detectors’ detect is similarity, not plagiarism
  • Second, Turnitin is not the only way to recognize plagiarism that teachers use

Let’s discuss the two statements in more detail. 

How to Avoid Turnitin

How Turnitin detects plagiarism

As stated above, plagiarism checkers don’t really check for plagiarism. They check for any similar sentences and phrases in your essay and other articles on the web. 

If you present these sentences or phrases in quotations marks, attribute the author, and limit direct quotations to 10% of your essay – there is absolutely nothing wrong with the detected similarity.

The peculiarity of Turnitin is that the papers are checked not only against the published sources but also against all other papers that have ever been submitted to it for plagiarism check. Being created for educational purposes in 1997, Turnitin seems to have seen it all, which is why it is so effective in detecting students’ self-plagiarism and similar essays bought from the websites – something online checkers cannot spot.    

Still, there is much plagiarism even Turnitin fails to recognize. This includes: 

  • Stolen ideas. Plagiarism checkers cannot recognize stolen ideas if they are presented in different words. If you take ready-made research and rewrite it changing the structure of sentences and substituting words for their synonyms, a plagscan will not spot any issues. 
  • Lack of citations. All the information, which is not common knowledge, should be cited. Period. After all, if you haven’t read particular information in a particular source, you might be making an unsupported claim like “the majority of students wish to take a gap year and travel the world” or “people working in the office suffer from acute chronic low-back pain”. When you are paraphrasing and not citing the information, your text will not flesh red in the plagiarism report. It will still be plagiarism, though.  
  • Similarities with texts that have no digital copy. Plagiarism detection software can detect similarities with digital resources that it can crawl. Thus, they can fail to spot any similarity if you copy from or poorly paraphrase a book that has no digital copy. The bad news is that teachers know the hard-copy sources they assign and will spot similarities better than crawlers.       
  • Lack of personal input. Needless to say, plagiarism checkers cannot determine if your paper has any personal input. Even if your paper consists of 100% paraphrased passages, it will be 100% plagiarism-free for Turnitin. Do not expect it to be an A paper though.    

Thus, if you wish to cheat Turnitin, there is one sure recipe for that – paraphrase. If you wish to know how to not plagiarize – keep reading.   

How teachers detect plagiarism

In a 2017 research into the students’ and staff perceptions of plagiarism, H. Louw revealed that only around 50% of teachers use Turnitin to detect plagiarism. Here are all the techniques and the percentage of teachers that rely on them to detect plagiarism: 

Differences in language use  85%
Differences in language style  82%
Formatting differences  71%
‘Gut feeling’ 70%
Notice a shortage of references in the text 67%
Notice a discrepancy between references in the text and entries in the bibliography 59%
Notice an absence of bibliography or incorrect bibliography 59%
Turnitin 53%
Google search 52%

Teachers also specified that they recognize plagiarism as they know the source well enough to spot similarities or see similar phrases and ideas in different students using the same source. 

Understanding how teachers spot plagiarism gives additional clues about what it takes to avoid plagiarism in your essay. Let’s still make it clear in the following section. 

How to Write an Essay Without Plagiarizing

How to not Plagiarize

Follow these 10 rules to avoid any kind of plagiarism in your essay or a research paper.

1. Use quotation marks

Use quotation marks each time you copy a sentence directly from the source. This also relates to specific phrases the authors use.

You should not reference or use quotation marks for:

  • titles of cited articles and books,
  • conventional designations (chronic low-back pain, cognitive impairment),
  • preferred bias-free language (persons with disabilities)
  • discipline-specific terms and phrases (sexual harassment, material culture, cognitive domain)

2. Don’t overuse direct quotations

Even if you present the text in quotation marks, limit the number of quotations to 10% of the general word count. Exclusion to the rule may be citing literature and laws (specify the expectations with your professor).

3. Use your own words

The only way to avoid plagiarism in an argumentative essay is to refer to experts’ views summarizing and paraphrasing their words. Don’t use the same sentence structure and words to render the author’s idea. To avoid plagiarism, analyze what you want to say and write in your own words. It will also help you maintain the consistency of your language use and style.

4. Cite both quotations and paraphrases

Cite every piece of information, which is not your own idea or general knowledge, no matter if you quote the source word-for-word or paraphrase.

Here are the samples of general knowledge that you don’t need to cite:

  • generally accepted facts available in the public domain: dates of birth and death of prominent people, generally accepted dates of the military, political, literary, and other historical events.
  • field-specific common knowledge: facts, theories, and methods that readers within that discipline are sure to be familiar with, e.g. Piaget’s development stages.

5. Include personal input

Make sure that the quoted and paraphrased ideas make a smaller part of your essay (30-60% depending on your year of studies). Be sure to include your original interpretation and evaluation of the cited material, your inferences on the topic, examples of how the information may be applied to the given context, etc.

6. Make in-text citations match the references

Make sure that all the sources cited in the text have the corresponding entries on the Works Cited/ References page and vice versa: all the referenced sources are indeed mentioned in-text.

7. Cite all types of sources

If you cite an image, a film, a lecture, a song, or any other type of material, created by someone else, it is necessary to cite and reference it too. For example, here is the guide on how to cite such sources in APA or MLA.

8. Adhere to a particular formatting style

Following the detailed formatting style requirements, you will not forget to include the necessary information about the source and will maintain consistency in your citations and references.

9. Do not fake your sources

To write an essay without plagiarising, do read and analyze the original sources. You cannot just read Wikipedia and cite all the sources it cites. Such paraphrasis will be poor and you risk misquoting the original ideas. If absolutely necessary, use a special format for indirect citations, e.g. (as qtd. in …)

10. Use plagiarism checkers

Use one of plagiarism detection software and correct the instances of poor paraphrasis that the tool highlights. Yes/no feedback or a mere indication of the plagiarism level will not help you do this; thus, use the checkers that highlight all similarities. I consistently use Plagscan to check papers submitted for editing. The amount of plagiarism above 4% is not acceptable in academic writing.

You may find tips on how to quote, paraphrase, and summarize in this post:

How to Prevent Plagiarism

Concluding Thoughts

Knowing how to avoid plagiarism, you will learn to avoid academic misconduct while producing quality essays and research papers. For each paper I edit, I correct the poor paraphrases and formatting issues and point to all missing citations, so that you can be sure you submit a 100% plagiarism-free paper. Otherwise, refer to an online assistant for creating a custom writing order.  

By the way, Make a Stand has been selected as one of the top 15 blogs on essay writing! A good reason to subscribe to regular updates, isn’t it? 

About the Author: Roselyn

Hi, I am Roselyn and love engaging, fit for purpose, and edited to perfection writing. Feel free to reach out to work with me, suggest topic ideas, or give feedback on Make a Stand – the project I passionately grow for more than 3 years now.

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