Plagiarism is the act of taking someone else's words or ideas and portraying them as if they are your own.

Merriam-Webster calls this a type of "literary theft," essentially meaning that you're stealing from the author who created the original content. Additionally, since this theft is literary in nature, it could involve taking their written words, something they said verbally, or even content provided in a podcast or online video.

Many colleges and universities have a strict policy against plagiarism. For instance, Saint Leo University's Academic Honor Code stresses that students shall present "only work that is genuinely their own" in their courses. It warns against cheating, lying to a professor, and resubmitting previous work, but it also cautions against plagiarizing.

How can you avoid plagiarizing so you don't potentially find yourself in a Conduct Meeting—and subject to sanctions which can range from issuing an apology to dismissal from the university—over the alleged theft of information provided in your assignment, paper, or discussion post? Here are a few strategies to consider to help you avoid plagiarism.

1. Cite your sources (all of them).

Any time you are presenting information that is not yours, the original source must be cited. This is true even if you aren't sharing actual data, but also a thought or idea. Depending on how you located the information, these sources may be in print (such as data taken from books or written manuals) or online.

The way in which you will cite your sources is determined by your course instructor. For instance, some will tell you to cite your sources directly in your assignment or post whereas others prefer that you use footnotes or endnotes.

Your instructor will also dictate which citation style to use. Three of the most common are:

  • APA (American Psychological Association) – typically used in psychology, the sciences, and education
  • MLA (Modern Language Association) – most often used in the humanities
  • Chicago – the preferred citation style in business, history, and fine arts

2. Use quotes.

If you are citing a source word for word, you must put the original statement in quotes. This tells the reader that the phrasing used was entirely someone else's and not your own.

For example, Theodore Roosevelt is credited with saying, "Believe you can and you're halfway there." If you were writing a paper about him and wanted to include this exact statement, it would need to be in quotes.

It would not need to be in quotes if you paraphrased or summarized the statement by saying that Roosevelt felt that believing in yourself was half the battle. In this instance, you would still need to cite your original source, but the sentence would not be in quotations because it isn't his actual, precise wording. This is a key strategy on how to avoid plagiarism in anything you write.

3. Use plagiarism detection software.

Plagiarism isn't always intentional. Maybe you forgot to include the source of information because you were close to the assignment deadline and, in your rush, didn't go back to make sure it was there. This can happen to anyone but, since it can result in a potential hearing and even dismissal, one way to avoid plagiarism or any questionable issue is to use plagiarism detection software.

Saint Leo University uses Turnitin for this purpose. Turnitin checks your writing against all other published works and identifies if any information is included in your document that is uncited or improperly referenced.

Other plagiarism checkers and detection software can be found online. Some of these charge a fee to use them and others are available for free.

4. Provide your own thoughts and ideas.

Another proven way on how to avoid plagiarism is to share your own thoughts and ideas. Because they are coming directly from you, you don't have to worry about stealing them from anyone else.

Admittedly, this is easier if you are writing a discussion post for one of your classes in an online degree program or if you have an assignment that asks your thoughts or opinion. When the work involves providing history or numerical data, it's more likely that you'll have to rely on research, which must be cited.

5. When in doubt, ask.

Finally, if you are ever confused about when you need to cite your sources and when you are okay to leave references or citations out, ask your course instructor. Share the specifics of the information you wish to provide and let him or her help you decide whether a citation must be used or if it is original enough to stand on its own.

The Bottom Line on How to Avoid Plagiarism

In the end, you can avoid plagiarism by being cautious about what material you use and how you present it. This should also give you the motivation to spend a little more time reading and researching content and then putting it into your own words. If you can do this effectively, you'll have little worry about plagiarizing someone else's words.