All about Plagiarism (and Ways to Avoid It)

What counts as plagiarism and what doesn't?


Today’s newsletter comes to you by way of Fancy Comma, LLC’s Kelly Tabbutt. Keep reading to learn more about plagiarism and ways you can avoid it.

Plagiarism can be a tricky thing. Of course, there are obvious examples of plagiarism, like purchasing a copy of an essay and turning it in as your own work for a class assignment. However, there are more subtle versions as well. Read on to learn how to avoid plagiarism.

Do you know what plagiarism is? Broadly speaking, it involves passing off someone else’s work as your own. Here are a few things that count as plagiarism (as well as ways to avoid them):

1.      Copy and paste entire sentences/sections of text

One of the most obvious examples of plagiarism is copying and pasting large sections of text (think entire pages or chapters) – or worse, entire essays or articles. Unless you are writing textbooks using illustrative writing examples, there is no situation in which this is acceptable.

If you want to include small subsections of texts (sentences), this is acceptable, assuming that it is clear that these are not your thoughts or words. In general, if you want to apply someone else’s thoughts or findings, unless you are relaying interview responses, try to paraphrase.

2.      Not using quotations

Not plagiarizing means giving credit where credit is due. Whenever you are presenting someone else’s ideas, you need to let the audience know that these are not your thoughts and tell them whose thoughts they are. Otherwise, you are plagiarizing.

When using someone’s exact words, you need to indicate this in two ways. First, you need to cite the source. Second, you need enclose the borrowed words in quotation marks to indicate that these words are not just someone’s ideas that you paraphrased but are their exact phrasing.

3.      Not citing sources when paraphrasing

Beyond direct quotations, paraphrasing also needs to be accompanied by a citation. Paraphrasing is when you reword someone else’s thoughts in your own words. These may be your own words, but they are not your own ideas. Give credit to the creator of those ideas.

When paraphrasing, you want to stay true to the original author’s meaning. This means replicating the main ideas – and their significance and connotations. When replicating someone else’s ideas, you need to add citations following the paraphrased ideas to make the source clear.

4.      Not citing when applying someone else’s ideas to your topic

Sometimes you borrow someone else’s ideas in a way that is neither a direct quote nor a paraphrase. Sometimes you borrow these ideas to apply them in a unique way to your own topic or the integrate them with your own ideas. Even in this case of original usage, you still to cite.

This is one of the trickiest cases of potential plagiarism, after all – you are creating something original. But you are “standing on the shoulders of giants” to do so. In this case, you need to give credit to – cite – the ideas that are not yours, but you can maintain credit for your original ideas.

What Is Not Plagiarism?

Now that you know what is plagiarism, there are a couple examples of what is not plagiarism. First, if you are building from someone else’s ideas in a unique way – as long as you credit whose thoughts you are building from – your original combination or extension is yours alone.

Second, making generalized statements, or stating basic facts – or common knowledge – is not plagiarism. For example, you do not need to cite a scientific source when you say that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. You only need to cite when you reference specific facts.

Credit Where Credit is Due

Essentially, the rule for recognizing plagiarism in your or others’ work is a simple question: are these ideas the author’s? If not, did the author indicate this and tell you whose ideas they were? In short, not plagiarizing is about giving credit where credit is due.

Remember that as a freelancer, your reputation is based on the quality of your work. If you plagiarize, you build a reputation of plagiarism. Not only does it make you look bad, it is actually terrible for SEO!


Here’s what we’ve been reading lately!

  1. Sarah Dobson is a professional academic science grant writer. Read her essay about reading and revising, called “The Reader is Always Right.”

  2. Here are 15 engaging ways to end your next blog post.

  3. For those freelancers engaged in SEO, here’s a guide on link building (when you’re not great at public relations). Hint: it’s actually much easier than you think! If you’re a new freelancer, adding SEO to your repertoire is a great way to make more money — it’s a very in-demand skill!

  4. If you’re interested in the history and evolution of video games and game development, read “Tennis for More Than Two” by Fancy Comma, LLC’s Sheeva Azma and Kevin Ho.

  5. Check out some of the books recently published by our colleagues: fellow freelancer Nick Nolan recently wrote a book about copywriting, and Sheeva’s MIT classmate, Elizabeth Ricker, landed a book deal writing about neurohacking. If you missed it, you can check out our book, How to Get Started in Freelance Science Writing, too.

That’s about it! Thanks for reading the July edition of the Fancy Comma, LLC newsletter. If you found our newsletter helpful, please share it with your colleagues!