9 Steps to Avoid Plagiarism as a Student (Including Using AI)

December 5, 2022
Updated: Jan 29, 2023
9 Steps to Avoid Plagiarism as a Student (Including Using AI)

A few days before the submission of my design thesis, the guide announced, “all of your written submissions will be checked for plagiarism on an advanced plagiarism checker.” Half the class froze. While all of us had original designs, a lot of us had been copying text from the internet to support our design visions. 

And we had no idea a plagiarism checker would be in play. 

Even though I’m the only one who went on to build a writing career, all of us learned to build systems to avoid plagiarism in academia, professional jobs, and even personal writing. 

In this blog, I’ll walk you through my step-by-step approach to avoiding plagiarism at all costs. 

Intentional and unintentional plagiarism

If you’re intentionally copying someone’s work and calling it your own, that’s intentional plagiarism. And in most cases, it’s considered theft. 

But if you’re not quoting references or citing people the right way when using their work, that’s unintentional plagiarism and can easily be fixed. Here’s how: pick a citation system and stick to it. 

Use a citation system

Depending on whether you’re writing a university paper or a blog, you’ll have a different citation system. 

Here are some common ones that universities use:

  1. MLA (Modern Language Association) style: Often used for literature, languages, and art. 
  2. APA (American Psychological Association) style: Used for social and behavioral sciences.
  3. Chicago style: Used for historical writing 
  4. CSE (Council of Science Editors): Used for science writing 

Each system outlines how to cite everything from ebooks to historical texts. 

Pro Tip: Quickly look up the most recent version of your citation system before you begin citing because some rules can be hard to remember. 

For online blogs, ebooks, and whitepapers, there are two citation systems I use:

1. Directly hyperlink the information to the source. 

For example:

Gartner predicts that by 2023, more than one-third of large organizations will have analysts practicing the discipline of decision intelligence, which includes decision modeling.”

Here I’ve directly linked to the source, which is Gartner.

Some style guides dictate that you link to the statistic itself because it serves two purposes — highlighting the key elements and citing the source. 

Here’s what that looks like:

“Gartner predicts that by 2023, more than one-third of large organizations will have analysts practicing the discipline of decision intelligence, which includes decision modeling.”

 

2. Add a link in superscript. 

Here’s what that looks like:

“Gartner predicts that by 2023, more than one-third of large organizations will have analysts practicing the discipline of decision intelligence, which includes decision modeling.”1 

3. Add a number in superscript with a citation index in the footnotes

Here’s what that looks like:

“Gartner predicts that by 2023, more than one-third of large organizations will have analysts practicing the discipline of decision intelligence, which includes decision modeling.”1

[rest of the page]

1 From Striving to Become a Data-Driven Organization? Start With 5 Key D&A Initiatives by Gartner

Pro tip: Add references to your document while you’re researching. Leaving them for later can force you to do double the work. 

Action item: Open a Google doc named "My citation rules", and write down how you plan to consistently use citations. Throw in a couple of examples for clarity.

Develop a note-taking habit

note taking

In the long run, note taking is the quickest way to avoid plagiarism. 

When you develop a habit of noting down what you study in your own words, you eliminate plagiarism by default. 

Let me show you how. 

Here’s an excerpt from a Gartner blog:

Original version: 

Seventy-seven percent of leaders agree that the COVID-19 pandemic forced their organizations to set up an online presence and launch digital commerce quickly. Taking quick action to launch new channels and meet (or exceed) consumer expectations resulted in the vast majority of digital marketing leaders surpassing their 2021 revenue and profitability goals. 

And while it’s safe to assume that these new consumer purchasing habits will outlast the pandemic, there will also be an eagerness to return to a “hybrid” mode of engaging with brands. This means both B2C and B2B organizations need to future-proof their digital commerce capabilities to account for the transformational aspect of digital commerce. 

Here’s what my notes from this blog look like:

Notes:

  • 77% of leaders say the pandemic forced them to go online with their stores—quickly. 
  • Doing this to satisfy customers helped marketers exceed their 2021 goals (both in revenue and profits).
  • The pandemic will go, but digital commerce will stay. 
  • People will shift from an “online only” to a hybrid world.
  • Both B2B and B2C organizations will create future-proof digital commerce capabilities.
 

Action item: Open a new folder (either on your computer or on Google Drive), and name it 'Notes'. From now on, summarize every article and text you read into a new file in this folder. This can serve as your personal swipe file. 

Learn to paraphrase

Student copying someone else's work

Paraphrasing can be tricky. On the one hand, some people consider paraphrasing a lighter version of plagiarism. But when done the right way, paraphrasing can be a way to bridge the gap between thorough research and writing. 

Let me walk you through my steps for paraphrasing the right way:

1. Take up larger chunks of text to paraphrase

When you paraphrase smaller chunks of text, the final version of your text will still be too similar to the original version. 

Here’s how:

Original version:

Rapid acceleration of digital commerce growth in 2021 has made it a near-universally recognized priority for 2022.

Paraphrased version:

In 2022, Digital Commerce is expected to grow rapidly, making it a nearly-universally recognized priority.

Here are a few more paraphrased options with Wordtune:

More paraphrasing

I particularly like the third option. It’s framed in active voice and condenses the sentence while retaining the original message. 

Some checkers and publications would consider this form of paraphrasing to be plagiarism because the only thing changed here is the sentence structure. 

Larger chunks of text helps you overcome this.

Let’s see how:

Original version:

Modern-day shopping experiences aren’t linear. Social media, mobile apps, email, browsers, live chat, in-store visits, and everything in between are thrown into the mix.

Mobile users are most likely to combine their smartphone search with an in-store visit. Almost three-quarters of US consumers use their phones to look for more information on the purchase they’re about to make in a store. One in four say they’ve changed their minds while in a checkout line after looking up details on a mobile device.

Catering to omnichannel shoppers and factoring in local search are smart best practices for retailers blending physical commerce with pre-purchase mobile touchpoints.

Source: The Future of Mobile Shopping and How to Optimize Your Site

The idea is to not paraphrase line for line but to understand the concept and rewrite it in your own words. 

Paraphrased version:

People rarely use just one shopping channel anymore. Everything from social media to in-store visits is a part of the buying journey. 

And it’s not just that mobile shoppers visit physical stores, the inverse also happens. One in four shoppers says they have, on occasion, changed their minds about a purchase while in the checkout line. This is because of a multitude of factors like material details, a better deal available online, or longer return periods. 

Almost 75% of people check their phones for more information on the product they’re about to buy in a shop. 

Retailers blending physical commerce with pre-purchase mobile touchpoints should cater to omnichannel shoppers and incorporate local search.

Notice that in the paraphrased version, I haven’t just changed the sentence structure; I’ve expressed the idea in an entirely different format. 

I used Wordtune to paraphrase some segments. 

Paraphrasing with ease

I chose the first option because it eliminates filler. Instead of positioning ‘catering to omnichannel shoppers’ and ‘factoring in local search’ as to-dos in a list of best practices, it gets straight to the point. 

The statement introduces who the advice is for and what the advice is. No fluff. 

2. Change the subject matter

Paraphrasing is not just used for expressing an idea in a different format, you can also use it to retain the structure for a completely different subject. 

For example, let’s look at this quote about cities by Libba Bray, Lair of Dreams

Original version: 

Every city is a ghost.

New buildings rise upon the bones of the old so that each shiny steel bean, each tower of brick carries within it the memories of what has gone before, an architectural haunting. Sometimes you can catch a glimpse of these former incarnations in the awkward angle of a street or filigreed gate, an old oak door peeking out from a new facade, the plaque commemorating the spot that was once a battleground, which became a saloon and is now a park.”

― Libba Bray, Lair of Dreams

I liked the analogy the author had made between cities and ghosts and realized that a similar relationship exists between writing and ancient towns. 

I paraphrased Libba’s paragraph structure with my subject matter. 

Paraphrased version:

A final draft is like the new town built on ancient ruins. 

New sentences rise upon the fragments of the old so that each new word, each new paragraph carries inside it the pieces of what it once was, a literary ruin. Sometimes the finished, polished drafts allow you to sneak a peek at their older structural elements in the middle of a sentence or the junction between two paragraphs, or even a gripping introduction. 

What was once the mere flicker of an idea, is not a stand-alone chapter. 

3. Look for synonyms

Find synonyms not just for words but also phrases. When I had newly learned how to paraphrase, I would just substitute synonyms for words and not phrases, and it was a big mistake. 

Let me show you the difference between the two. 

Original version:

Bad architecture is in the end as much a failure of psychology as of design. It is an example expressed through materials of the same tendencies which in other domains will lead us to marry the wrong people, choose inappropriate jobs and book unsuccessful holidays: the tendency not to understand who we are and what will satisfy us.

― Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness 

Paraphrased with word-only synonyms:

Bad architecture is in the end as much a collapse of mindset as of design. It is an example expressed through substances of the same temperaments which in other sectors will lead us to wed the wrong human beings, pick unsuitable occupations, and plan disappointing vacations: the inclination not to understand who we are and what will please us.

― Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness

Paraphrased with word and phrase synonyms:

Bad architecture is, ultimately, as much a collapse of mindset as of design. It is an example expressed through similar materials which push us to make the wrong choices in life. It will lead us to unsuitable relationships, miscalculate our choice of professions and even holidays : a lack of self-awareness. 

While you can easily create the word-only synonym version with online tools or a thesaurus, the second version requires a deeper understanding of the language. 

For example, “ultimately” is an easily recognizable synonym for “in the end,” but replacing “choose inappropriate jobs and book unsuccessful holidays” with “miscalculate our choice of professions and even holidays” requires a two-step process. 

First, recognize that both professions and holidays are life decisions that the author says might get made incorrectly. Second, understand that while a profession is a constant part of life for most people, a holiday is a sporadic interruption. This is why I’ve used “even” when mentioning holidays. 

Finally, ‘the tendency not to understand who we are and what will satisfy us.’ is a lack of self-awareness. Wordtune spotted this with its paraphrasing suggestions. 

Spotting issues

4. Explain complicated terms simply

Break down complex definitions into simpler terms for your readers. This is especially useful when you’re trying to restate scientific facts or data.

Let’s look at an example to understand:

Here’s an excerpt from a chapter on Homeostasis, the internal regulation of body temperature. 

Original version: 

Countercurrent adaptation is found in dolphins, sharks, bony fish, bees, and hummingbirds.

Now if we try to understand what countercurrent adaptation means, we can paraphrase this sentence by changing parts of speech. For example, 

Paraphrased version:

Dolphins, sharks, bony fish, bees and hummingbirds can transfer heat between blood vessels that are next to each other. 

5. Change parts of speech 

It’s easy to change nouns into verbs or verbs into adjectives for a completely different sentence. You can do this for multiple sentences to avoid plagiarism. 

Original version: 

Wild cats that live in cold climates have heat preservation mechanisms to keep themselves warm during winters. 

Here’s how we change “heat preservation mechanisms’ into a verb. 

Paraphrased version:

Cold climate wild cats have mechanisms to preserve heat in winter. 

I use Wordtune to do this because I can pick the most succinct option. In this case, I picked the first obe

paraphrasing using Wordtune

The easiest way to avoid plagiarism

Give yourself enough time to research and write. 

Plagiarism creeps in when you’re pressed for time and have a deadline. By starting your research 4-5 days before your draft is due, you can escape the temptation to lightly paraphrase or plagiarize text. 

When you absolutely do have to paraphrase, remember to follow the best practices to make sure you understand the content and paraphrase the right way. 

P.S.
This article was co-written with Wordtune. Wordtune didn’t write the whole piece. Instead, it contributed ideas, suggested rephrasing alternatives, maintained consistency in tone, and of course - made the process much more fun for the writer.

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