Using sources — and avoiding plagiarism

This is a topic I’ve always intended to write about at some point, but I was prompted to do it now by a story that broke a couple of weeks ago.

A debut novelist withdrew her book before publication after admitting it contained some plagiarised passages. She then wrote a personal essay, published in a literary magazine, offering an apology for the plagiarism and her explanation of how and why it had happened.

The essay was subsequently pulled, a few hours after it was published, when it was discovered it also contained plagiarised content  — in an ironic twist, almost certainly plagiarised from the man behind the Plagiarism Today website.

Now, of course you can use other people’s writing as inspiration for your own content. Other people often have great ideas and insights that you want to share with your audience. But you must treat content from others respectfully.

How to avoid plagiarism

If you do quote content word for word (and it’s very easy to do that these days, thanks to copy and paste), you must make it clear it’s quoted content and who wrote it originally. You should also only ever quote the minimum amount of material possible.

More often, a better option is to paraphrase the content. As Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today explains in this great blog post, that doesn’t mean copying the text over and then tweaking it a bit. It means starting from scratch and, ideally, keeping the original content in a separate document while you write your version.

For example, when I summarised the situation that prompted this post, I had read the various sources that had alerted me to the story a couple of times and then opened up a blank document and wrote my own summary. A few times, I referred back to the sources to check the details, but didn’t copy anything over while I was writing.

Get your writing process right

You should also cite your sources as you write, rather than when you’ve finished your draft. That way, you’re much less likely to accidentally forget to connect what’s in your content with what prompted it. It’s also great practice to include a link back to the source so people can read the original version. They’ll appreciate that you’re helpfully guiding them to other useful content.

I strongly urge you to now go and read the essay at Plagiarism Today. It’s not very long and it’s packed with great advice.

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