Avoiding Plagiarism

What is Plagiarism?

In plain English, plagiarism means using another person's thoughts, ideas, or written works (whether in whole or in part) and passing them off as your own. Whether you intended to plagiarize or not, if you use someone else's work without acknowledging this through a proper citation, you are essentially stealing their work, and breaking the Barnard Honor Code as well as the principles of academic integrity.

To cite is to bring something forward as evidence. A parking ticket is sometimes called a "citation" because it points out where you parked illegally. An award can also be referred to as a "citation" because it provides evidence about what you did to deserve the prize. Citations in academic writing simply identify the source of the text (evidence) you are using.

Why Use Citations?

  • To give credit to the sources you've used
  • To enable others to find the same sources you've used
  • To be part of the "scholarly conversation"

The Scholarly Conversation

Kenneth Burke, in The Philosophy of Literary Form (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1941), provides the analogy of academic scholarship as an infinite, ongoing conversation, which you join, contribute to, and take from, and to which others, likewise, do the same.

By joining the academic world, engaging in research, using the research of others who have gone before you, and writing your own papers, you are participating in the scholarly conversation.

What does "Scholarly" Mean?

  • Books, journals and Web sites can all be scholarly. They use specialized vocabulary that is understood by experts in the field rather than by the general public, and they cite the work of other scholars so that the reader can go and check the sources.
  • Scholarly journals are periodicals for specialized readership.  The articles are written by scholars, or experts in a field of study, describing “cutting edge” research.  They are “peer reviewed” or “refereed” by other experts before publication; this is a kind of quality control mechanism.  They have footnotes, endnotes, or a bibliography, and give citations to other scholars’ work.  They also give the affiliation of the author (e.g. a university or research institute).
  • Popular magazines are written for a general audience, and the vocabulary is less specialized.  They do not have footnotes or give citations to scholarly work.  

Also see: Epic Library Battles of History: Scholarly vs. Popular (video).

Academic Integrity

Academic integrity at Barnard entails an individual and college-wide commitment to the values of honesty and responsible academic engagement. In practice, this includes refraining from lying, cheating, or stealing (including plagiarism), as well as embracing all of the rights and responsibilities that are involved in participating freely in an academic institution.

From the Barnard Honor Code, approved by the student body in 1912:

"We, the students of Barnard College, resolve to uphold the honor of the College by refraining from every form of dishonesty in our academic life. We consider it dishonest to ask for, give, or receive help in examinations or quizzes, to use any papers or books not authorized by the instructor in examinations, or to present oral work or written work which is not entirely our own, unless otherwise approved by the instructor. We consider it dishonest to remove without authorization, alter, or deface library and other academic materials. We pledge to do all that is in our power to create a spirit of honesty and honor for its own sake."

Plagiarism also includes submitting the work of a commercial writing service, or essays found on the Internet, as your own work. Section 213-b of the New York State Education Law prohibits the sale of term paper, essays, and research reports to students enrolled in a College.

When and How to Cite

It doesn't matter where you got the information you're using, it needs to be cited:

  • Books, journals or newspaper articles, websites, movies, interviews, conversations
  • Free resources or ones for which you paid a fee
  • Academic or popular sources
  • Sources from the library and the internet

When in doubt, cite it!

Common Knowledge

"Common knowledge" does not need to have a citation. It refers to facts and ideas that the majority of members of a community or academic discipline can be expected to know. You can assume it’s common knowledge if it appears undocumented in five or more reliable sources.

Some examples of common knowledge that do not need to be cited:

  • Emily Dickinson only published a few poems during her lifetime
  • The U.S. entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor
  • Maine has a lower yearly average temperature than Florida
  • e=mc2
  • Carl Rogers was a psychologist whose theory of client-centered therapy had a great impact in the field of psychotherapy
  • any undisputed date

If you’re not sure whether or not a fact is common knowledge, cite it!

Any opinion, analysis or interpretation of ideas or facts must, of course, also be cited.
For more information, see:
Not-So-Common Knowledge (Academic Integrity at Princeton. Princeton University, August 2011.)
"Common Knowledge" in Academic Writing (PK6: Academic Citation and Documentation. University of Tampere, Finland, September 2010)

Primary and Secondary Sources

What if you are reading a book or article (secondary source) which cites another (original or primary) source? Can you cite that original source without actually looking at it? For example, if an article by A includes a quote from B, is it okay to use B's book quotation in your paper and only cite B? That is, using the citation information for B's book included in A's article, but without citing A herself?

The answer is that it is considered dishonest to cite a source without actually having read it, or at least having read the relevant parts of it. The source you have in your hand may not accurately represent or reproduce the text or even the ideas presented in the original. Shouldn't you judge for yourself, anyway? If you are not able to obtain a copy of the original, primary, text to look at, you can still refer to it. In the text of your paper, refer to the original work (in the example above, this would be B), but include a citation for the secondary source, so your reader knows where and how you accessed the original work (in the example above, this would be A). Then, in your reference list, again include a citation for the secondary source, A. For an example of this, see the OWL at Purdue website.

Citing Ideas

It is wise to document sources of ideas in your work, even if they are not as straightforward as quotations or the paraphrase of an idea. It may be a theory in general, a suggestion made by another author, or an idea that comes to you while reading a source. In this case, you would not cite a page number, but rather the work as a whole.

Citation Styles

Citation styles define the formatting of references/citations within different academic disciplines. The most commonly used citation styles are American Psychological Association (APA), Modern Language Association (MLA), Chicago, and Council of Science Editors (CSE/CBE). Most styles utilize either parenthetical (citations enclosed within parentheses), footnote (at the bottom of each page), or endnote (at the end of each chapter or at the very end of the work) style citations within the text. In addition, most styles utilize a reference list or works cited list at the end of the document/book with more extensive information about each source.

For more information, see Citation Practices.

Inserting Quotes

To quote another author or resource, you must use that author's exact words. This means that you need to copy the words exactly as they appear in the original, and add quotation marks at the beginning and end to indicate that the information is a direct quote. You must also provide information about the original source of the quotation and cite it in your work. In addition, it is often recommended that you introduce a quote with your own words, and that you provide explanation or analysis right after the quote.

You may decide to use a quotation if:

  • The author's language is noteworthy
  • You intend to analyze the passage quoted in great detail; or
  • Summarizing or paraphrasing the passage would result in a misinterpretation or misrepresentation of the author's meaning or words.


Paraphrasing is often thought to be similar to summarizing, but rather than being simply a more concise version of a passage, paraphrasing requires you to restate all of the information from the original source and not just the main idea. Paraphrasing is more than just choosing a few synonyms and inserting them into the original sentence (this is considered to be plagiarism). You must also alter the syntax (the word and phrase order) of the sentence.

For example, if the original text (from Pyle, Howard. Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates: Fiction, Fact & Fancy Concerning the Buccaneers & Marooners of the Spanish Main. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1921) is written:

Just above the northwestern shore of the old island of Hispaniola—the Santo Domingo of our day—and separated from it only by a narrow channel of some five or six miles in width, lies a queer little hunch of an island, known, because of a distant resemblance to that animal, as the Tortuga de Mar, or sea turtle.

Then this would be an example of plagiarism of that text:

Just above the northwestern coast of the ancient island of Hispaniola—the Santo Domingo of today—and divided from it by a thin channel of some five or six miles in width, exists a peculiar little hunch of an island, known, due to a remote likeness to that animal, as the Tortuga de Mar, or sea turtle (Pyle 3).

This is plagiarism because the writer simply plugged in some synonyms without changing the structure of the sentence.

An appropriate way to paraphrase this text might be:

Near what we call Santo Domingo today, and what was called Hispaniola centuries ago, you can find the island called Tortuga de Mar, or sea turtle. This island is only five or six miles away from the northwest coast of Santo Domingo and got its name because it looks a little bit like a sea turtle (Pyle 3).

For more information, see How to Recognize Unacceptable and Acceptable Paraphrases (Plagiarism: What It is and How to Recognize and Avoid It. Indiana University Writing Tutorial Services, April 2004)


When you summarize, you condense a passage in a way that presents the passage's most important ideas, but omits some details. When you summarize a passage you should:

  • Restate the central idea in your own words.
  • Include an in-text citation to indicate to the reader where the passage you summarized begins and ends. You can also add attributive tags (phrases which are used to introduce a quote/passage) to longer summaries. These tags can be used to show where a summary begins. Examples of attributive tags include:
    • Lincoln stated...
    • As Mr. Chen suggests...
    • Howard Pyle tells readers that...
  • Avoid including opinions or feelings about the passage within the summary. Any opinions you use in your work should be clearly distinguished from the summary of the passage so that it is clear they are your own.

One suggestion for the best method to summarize is to do the following: read the passage, and lay it aside for a while. Then come back and record your memory of the passage in your own words. Now, double-check the passage to make sure you have not remembered the author's exact words or misrepresented their ideas.

Further Resources

Documenting Your Research: from Library Compass, a collaborative project produced by Columbia University Libraries and the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning.

Youtube videos explaining plagiarism, from the librarians at Rutgers University:
What is Plagiarism? (Part 1 of 3)
Plagiarism: Real Life Examples (Part 2 of 3)
The Cite is Right: The Quiz Show (Part 3 of 3)


This page is based on a tutorial by Diane Harvey (Duke University), Kawanna Bright (NC State University), Libby Gorman (NC Central University), Kim Vassiliadis (UNC-Chapel Hill Library) and Julie Greenberg (UNC's School of Information and Library Science) with much thanks.