Why is it still plagiarism when I paraphrase and use my own words?

It’s hard to get anything right the first time. The vast majority of us don’t learn to ride a bicycle the first time we get on a bike. We don’t learn to drive right away, either. We learn with guidance and correction--and it’s even better when we receive that feedback in the moment and multiple times. Essay writing is the same.

While copying and pasting another person’s work and presenting it as your own idea can be a pretty clear example of plagiarism, there are a lot of nuances to academic misconduct, too. It’s not easy figuring out whether or not you’ve got it right, all while you’re trying to learn and avoid getting in trouble when you didn’t intend to plagiarize.

Let’s bring up one example--like distinguishing paraphrasing and plagiarism from original work.

Students are told to “put ideas into your own words” in order to avoid plagiarism. We know to always cite quotations. They’re literally words from another person (easily accomplished via copy and paste) and they should be credited to someone else.

But teachers also tell students to “use the ideas of others in your own words,” which is also defined as paraphrasing. 🤪

What on earth is the difference? Isn’t taking the ideas of another person and putting them into your own words a way to avoid plagiarism??? Answer: Not when it’s someone else’s idea.

In a prior post on paraphrasing, we wrote, “Citation isn’t simply about giving credit for other people’s words. It’s about both giving credit to other people’s work that your writing is built upon and highlighting where your information came from” (Plagiarism.org, 2018).

Here is an example of paraphrasing and an appropriate in-text APA citation for the above quote:

It is important not only to cite quotations in the form of other people’s words but also to give credit to the ideas of others. When your writing is built upon their ideas, it’s important to highlight your sources (Plagiarism.org, 2018).

Because we didn’t build on the idea, but repeated it, we attributed the source.

When we have our own original ideas, then those are our own and there is no need to cite sources. For instance, we can use the above idea from Plagiarism.org and build on it to form an original idea:

It’s important to cite our sources, whether they’re quoted or paraphrased, to avoid plagiarism. First, let’s discuss how to tell the difference between our own words and paraphrasing.

Paraphrasing is summarizing the idea of another person--and when we use that idea to build our own, we then produce original work. So what are some effective ways to learn to avoid paraphrasing plagiarism?

  • Cite the source when you are repeating the idea of another person’s work.
  • If your text is too close to the original work, consider quoting and citing the source.

In sum, cite your source when you paraphrase.

Another way to avoid paraphrasing plagiarism is with real-time feedback. Sometimes our instructors give us a list that tells us all the different ways plagiarism can manifest. But it’s hard to learn something a month in advance, and then have to recall it within the process of writing. It’s way more effective for that information to arise while we’re writing. Wouldn’t that be nice?

There are tools like Draft Coach that can provide feedback in real-time that helps guide us towards proper citation so that we can focus on writing a better paper. And stop worrying about committing plagiarism by accident and getting an F or worse.

This is the best kind of feedback, one that actually helps, telling us specifically what we need to improve right then and there as we learn. Ultimately, the goal is to be able to do this automatically and do this all on our own. But just like driving or riding a bicycle, there’s a learning journey beforehand and students should feel supported through that process.

Because in the end, believing in yourself helps you to be more original.