Here's how to avoid plagiarizing someone else's work, even accidentally

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Monday night, Melania Trump delivered an address to the Republican National Convention that was later revealed to have plagiarized portions of a speech Michelle Obama had given at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Tuesday night, Donald Trump Jr. delivered a speech of his own that it was contained elements from the speechwriter's past writings. Some thought this was self-plagiarism on the part of the speechwriter, F.H. Buckley.

Plagiarism has real effects: it destroys careers, both educational and professional, and can lead to lawsuits and other repercussions as well. Meredith McIver, the Trump Organization staff writer who wrote Melania Trump's speech, offered her resignation, but it was not accepted.


Most academic institutions and organizations now use software like Turn It In, which can detect plagiarized phrases in submitted text. But no matter where you're tempted to plagiarize, the chances are decent that you'll be caught.

Whether you someday want to make a political speech, are a journalist, or are just trying to finish a term paper, it's important to know how to avoid plagiarizing another writer's work. Here's how you do it.


The simplest way to avoid plagiarizing someone else's work is to say that you are citing someone else's work. Literally all you have to do is say explicitly where a phrase or quote originated. (This one comes from the Austin American-Statesman.) According to, "when in doubt, cite sources."


Quotation marks are your best friend

According to the Poynter Institute, "Attribution is the opposite of plagiarism…and the clearest indicator of attribution is quotation marks, followed by a citation." However, this does not mean you can just paraphrase someone else's work and be in the clear. Norman Lewis, as quoted by Poynter, in his dissertation at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland wrote, “treating paraphrasing as a plagiarism panacea ignores the fact that a person who cribs from someone else’s work is still cribbing, even if he or she is adept at rewording.”


Cut-and-paste is your worst enemy

Copying and pasting someone else's words into your own work (often, with an intent to rewrite those words in your own voice later on) is one of the most common sources of plagiarism. It's also one of the easiest to avoid.


Harvard offers this advice:

open a separate document on your computer for each source so you can file research information carefully. When you type or cut and paste into that document, make sure to include the full citation information for the print source or the full URL and the date you copied the page(s).

Use logical and precise names for the files you create, and add citation information and dates. This allows you to retrieve the files easily, deters you from accidentally deleting files, and helps you keep a log of the order in which your research was conducted.


That's a few extra steps, and more windows in Word or Google Docs to keep track of, but it's better than getting expelled or losing your job.

Plan it out, don't just write

Grammarly, a resource for younger writers, says making an outline before starting a project is a great idea. This forces you to carefully separate original ideas from your sources. If you do this, you might just start "writing blind" which could lead to your ideas and others' melding without you even realizing it.


No excuses

According to a student resource available to University of Oklahoma attendees, "'I didn't mean to' is the most common excuse to a charge of plagiarism." OU's test for academic misconduct is based on "whether the student knew or should have known that his or her actions" were plagiarism.


If you're in a professional setting, assume you are being held to similar standards.

David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on—hop on. Got a tip? Email him:

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