Plagiarism is a serious academic offence that has become an increasing problem in the digitally mediated “cut and paste” world that students inhabit. The temptation to take another person’s ideas and insert them directly into your own essays is literally a click away, even while most overt plagiarism leaps off the page like a red flag to professors (trust me on this—most cut and pastes are easy to detect!). Still, what many students do not realize is how often their own unintended actions read as deliberate plagiarism. Consulting the "Actions That Might Be Seen as Plagiarism" chart, it is important to see just how wide ranging the act of plagiarism is.
The grey area of “building on someone’s ideas without citation” is the most common problem I see with student research papers, and I routinely encourage students to risk over-citing in their papers versus passing off ideas without proper recognition. Here is where the skill of paraphrasing comes in.
Paraphrasing is the act of re-stating ideas from a text or passage into your own words with proper acknowledgment.
It is a skill that will help you avoid the dreaded mistake of writing a research paper where you simply string together a series of quotes without proper introduction, analysis or citation (see Mistakes 2 and 3 in Top 10 Common Student Mistakes When Preparing Research Essays). Importantly, paraphrasing provides you with the opportunity to demonstrate your comprehension and analytical skills through the act of re-phrasing ideas that you come across in your research. There is of course a thin line between paraphrasing and plagiarism, but generally speaking, you can prevent this concern by reviewing examples of effective paraphrasing and ALWAYS citing the source of your paraphrase clearly and transparently.
The Purdue Online Writing Lab "Write It In Your Own Words" is an excellent source to check out to help you practice this skill. I also encourage you to avoid the perils of unintended plagiarism through a few common sense practices outlined beneath the chart linked above: 1) Avoid procrastinating when it comes to the actual writing of your papers—leaving this part of the process to the last minute leads to desperate acts of “cut and paste”; 2) give yourself ample time to revise and edit your paper to catch unintended plagiarism in sections of your writing; 3) proof-read, proof-read, proof-read and then buy a friend a coffee to do the same. Remember that even unintended plagiarism can be grounds for a failing grade and possible disciplinary action at your university. Academic integrity stands at the foundation of the university endeavour and most professors are on high-alert to identify and expose plagiarism when marking. Learn to guard yourself through improving your writing and citing skills.