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Avoid Plagiarism by Paraphrasing Correctly

October 27, 2011
by James Sullivan
The ability to fairly incorporate the ideas of another writer into one’s own work is a delicate skill that students of the Internet age must master.

What Is Paraphrasing?

Anyone who has ever written a research paper has had to decide how to present another writer’s ideas. If done properly, the result is a piece of writing in your own voice that draws from various sources to enhance your own argument. If done without care, the result could be plagiarism. And with the consequences of plagiarism being severe, understanding how to paraphrase the right way is essential.

So what is paraphrasing? It simply means conveying another writer’s ideas using your own words. For instance, let’s say you’re writing a research paper about the moon landing for a history class. In your research you find a great description of the design and function of the Apollo Lunar Module that would fit perfectly into your account of NASA’s technological innovation. Rather than quote the original author, you decide to paraphrase.

The two most important points to consider when paraphrasing are: 1) you must cite the source of the paraphrased text both in the body of your article, and in the reference list, and 2) you must express the original concepts using different words.

The Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin raises a fundamental question about one of the more vague aspects of paraphrasing: “What are your own words? How different must your paraphrase be from the original?”

In answering this question, it notes that certain topics contain specialized sets of terminology that would be difficult and cumbersome to paraphrase. Using the example of the moon landing, terms like earth parking orbit, Powered Descent Initiation, landing gear and lunar surface, even if used extensively in the original text, could also be used in your paraphrased version because they are standard terms within any discussion of the moon landing. But again, they should only be used if the phrases from which they were drawn were substantially altered. The university elaborates on this point with examples at its Web site.

If you’re still not sure what constitutes plagiarism, see the comparisons put together by the School of Education at Indiana University, Bloomington. The site offers five side-by-side examples of plagiarism and paraphrasing, along with explanations of what to do, and what not to do.

The University of Wisconsin also offers practical tips and exercises to help you paraphrase, including, “Look away from the source; then write,” and “While looking at the source, first change the structure, then the words.”

And importantly, don’t approach the task of paraphrasing as a tedious, word-by-word consultation with a thesaurus. Think of it as a creative challenge. How can the original text be conveyed in your own voice? Can it be improved, or its points made more concisely and clearly?

To Quote, or to Paraphrase?

Now that you understand what paraphrasing is, the next question to ask is, “when is it appropriate to paraphrase?”

Carol Rohrbach and Joyce Valenza of the School District of Springfield Township have put together a bulleted list to help you understand when it’s preferable to paraphrase, summarize and quote. In addition to providing valuable insight, the advice presented helps you think more broadly about how to incorportate sources into your writing, and how to structure your research.

Reference: Plagiarism and the Digital Age

For more in-depth reading on issues surrounding plagiarism, visit the findingDulcinea Plagiarism Prevention Web Guide. It contains resources for understanding what constitutes plagiarism, how to avoid plagiarism, plagiarism detection and more.

In one of its "Smart Talks," Project Information Literacy spoke with Harvard Law professor John Palfrey about how today's information landscape has affected the "nature of plagiarism" among students. Check out their conversation for insight into this highly nuanced issue.

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