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Ever read something and thought, “That’s brilliant! I’ll use that in my essay!” No harm, no foul, right? Wrong. Copy someone else’s work, and you’ve broken a major rule in writing—and it could earn you an F on that paper (or worse, suspension or expulsion from school).

What exactly is plagiarism?

Plagiarism is using someone else’s words or ideas without citing your source. It can also mean using someone else’s words or ideas as if they were your own. Even if you didn’t intend to plagiarize, it’s still a big deal and could have major consequences. (Check with your school on the rules about plagiarism.)

Is this plagiarism?

It’s probably plagiarism if:

  • You took, paid for, or copied someone else’s work
  • You used sections of someone else’s work without quoting or citing it as a reference (this includes information from the internet—beware of copy-pasting!)
  • You rearranged the words of someone else’s work without citing your source
  • You paid someone to write your paper for you (how can high school students afford this anyway?)

It isn’t always so cut-and-dry. Plagiarism can also include building on someone else’s ideas or not paraphrasing appropriately—in other words, using too many words or phrases that are close to those in the original without citing the source.

Paraphrasing vs. plagiarism

“To paraphrase something means to put it into your own words, while plagiarizing is essentially copying someone else’s ideas and claiming them as your own,” says Meg Bargeon, MAE, language arts teacher at Lafayette High School in Wildwood, Missouri. “I tell students to read the author’s words about a topic, and then close the book or put away the article; then I ask them to explain what they just read,” she says. After writing the explanation in their own words, students are asked to include an in-text citation.

“Students may be citing direct quotes in the author’s original words, paraphrasing in their own, or summarizing an entire article; but unless they did the original thinking, they must provide credit to the author(s),” says Bargeon. “Plagiarizing work is a serious academic issue, but thankfully, with a little effort, it is easy to avoid.”

3 tips for citing your sources

  • MLA, APA, or Chicago? If you don’t know which style your teacher wants you to use, ask. Different teachers and subjects require the use of different citation styles. For example, “Language arts tends to use MLA format, history often uses Chicago or Turabian, and social sciences such as psychology and education normally use APA style,” says Meg Bargeon, MAE, language arts teacher at Lafayette High School in Wildwood, Missouri.
  • Use the Purdue Owl. We can all thank Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana for creating such a valuable resource for citing sources. The OWL (Online Writing Lab) provides accurate and up-to-date information about how to create in-text citations and reference lists in the most common styles: APA, MLA, and Chicago. It offers explanations and examples and is the go-to resource for students, writers, and even teachers.
  • Try a citation generator. Citation generators create the citation for you. All you have to do is input the source information and select which citation style you are using. Some good options are KnightCite from Calvin College or Google Scholar. Beware of gimmick citation generators that ask you to pay or are bogged down with ads. You should still double-check your citations for accuracy when using citation generators. Computers are smart, but they aren’t perfect at citing sources.

5 ways to avoid being a plagiarist

  1. Cite your sources.

    Ask your teacher which style you should use to cite them (e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago).
  2. Learn how to paraphrase:

    Say in your own words what someone else has said. Changing a few words in the sentence does not make it your own. And even if you have paraphrased, you still need to cite the source.
  3. If your school has a writing tutor or writing lab, use it.

    They can help you cite your sources correctly.
  4. Use reliable sources

    online for help with citing essays (try the Purdue Online Writing Lab) as well as checking your paper for plagiarism.
  5. Don’t be afraid to ask your teacher for help.

    If you’ve written something and you’re unsure whether or not you paraphrased it appropriately, ask your teacher to look it over and give you some guidance.

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Article sources

Meg Bargeon, MAE, language arts teacher at Lafayette High School in Wildwood, Missouri.

Angeli, E., Wagner, J., Lawrick, E., Moore, K., et al. (2010, May 5). General format. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/01/

Harvard.edu. (n.d.). Harvard guide to citing sources: How to avoid plagiarism. Retrieved from https://isites.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?keyword=k70847&pageid=icb.page342057

Plagiarism.org. (n.d.). What is plagiarism? Retrieved from https://www.plagiarism.org