Avoiding Unintended Plagiarism

Plagiarism is the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own. Many of the forms that plagiarism takes are obvious and it is easy for well-meaning people to avoid them. For example, everyone knows that copying someone else’s writing word-for-word is plagiarism, as is writing new words in order to intentionally present someone else’s ideas as one’s own. However, well-meaning people often find themselves worrying about committing plagiarism by accident, for it is possible to plagiarize even without intending to do so. This guide offers an introduction to the principles of academic writing that can help people avoid plagiarizing by accident.

Most often, accidental plagiarism happens when a writer is doing research on a topic and comes across a theory or idea with which they completely agree, so much so that this other person’s idea now represents their own view on the topic, as well. Compared to expressing disagreement with another scholar, completely agreeing with someone else’s idea can be tricky, at the sentence level, because it’s less obvious how to distinguish between what the other scholar is saying and what the writer is saying. Being in a position of complete agreement with another scholar is precisely the situation in which some writers end up composing sentences that amount to unintended plagiarism because they can’t figure out how to separate the other person’s point from their own agreement with it in their composition of the sentence. From a reader’s point of view, the result is a sentence in which the writer presents the other person’s thinking as being their own invention.

In order to avoid this kind of accidental plagiarism, one has to construct sentences that include action verbs both for the other scholar and for the writer who speaking to his or her reader:

“According to X, lifting coronavirus self-isolation measures too soon would be a dangerous mistake, and I agree.”

In some academic disciplines, the use of the first-person pronoun is frowned upon, and that’s okay. There are other ways to signal when the writer is expressing their own opinion. All one has to do is express an evaluative judgement that someone else’s point is right, wrong, astute, short-sighted, robust, feeble, etc. A reader will understand that a value judgment is implicitly coming from the writer’s point of view:

“According to X, lifting coronavirus self-isolation measures too soon would be a dangerous mistake, a view that is entirely correct.”  

One might worry that signaling complete agreement in this carefully separated way will simply reveal to the reader the degree to which one’s own position is not original. However, clearly distinguishing between another person’s point and one’s own position of agreement makes it possible to signal some crucial ways in which one’s endorsement of the other person’s claim is in fact doing something original. For example, the writer can signal that they’re offering original reasoning that lends additional support to the other scholar’s claim:

“According to X, lifting coronavirus self-isolation measures too soon would be a dangerous mistake, and I agree because…[reasoning and/or evidence not offered by other scholar].”

Another way to do original work while completely agreeing with someone else’s idea is to apply their concept or theory to an object of analysis the other person never discussed. All one has to do is construct a sentence that signals where their ideas end and yours begin. For example:

“Drawing on X’s theory of Y, we can see how the federal reaction to the novel coronavirus is…”

Here, the voice-signaling sentence makes clear that the other scholar deserves credit for the theory, whereas the writer of the sentence deserves credit for the new application of that theory.

Writing sentences that clearly identify where another person’s ideas end and your own begin is essential because most original contributions in the academic world are incremental. In other words, they add to existing scholarly knowledge—knowledge for which other people deserve credit. Consequently, your readers are more likely to trust that the work you claim as your orginal contribution really is your unique innovation if you enable them to see the ways in which your contribution is adding onto the preceding ideas and arguments of others.

A final note on unintended plagiarism: readers of this guide may worry—as many academic researchers do—that the work they’re doing might be replicating ideas that are already published in books and articles they haven’t read and don’t even know about. This is an understandable concern. On the one hand, there is simply no way to read all the scholarly literature out there, and so there is no way to completely avoid this possibility. On the other hand, there are ways to decrease the chances that this would happen, the biggest being peer review. Getting a relevant expert to review your work—either during the journal submission process or by asking a colleague to read a draft—ensures that someone knowledgeable can tell you if there is something obvious for you to be citing and responding to that is currently being overlooked.

Additional resources:

Gerald Graff and Cathy Berkenstein, They Say / I Say (New York: Norton, 2018).