Avoid Plagiarism: Take Good Notes

Most students have heard of plagiarism, and most also understand that plagiarism can have serious academic consequences (more about plagiarism in a later blog post). Many students, however, don’t have a good grasp of how to avoid plagiarizing even when they are trying not to. One strategy you can use is to take good notes while you are conducting your research.

How can you use note-taking to reduce your risk of plagiarism?

Intentional vs. Unintentional Plagiarism

First, let’s talk about the difference between a student who knows very well that they are plagiarizing, and one who is trying not to but still manages to mess up. Most professors I’ve talked to about this (and it comes up a lot!) make a distinction between what I, at least, call “intentional” and “unintentional” plagiarism. The difference is intention.

People that plagiarize intentionally know very well that they are doing so, and it’s generally easy to spot. This is the student that lifts entire sentences or paragraphs from papers, verbatim, and plays it off as their own writing. I even once had a student who downloaded an entire white paper and just changed the cover page. Another student plagiarized from abstracts they found using an internet search. When they submitted their paper electronically, the search terms were still highlighted. That’s cheating, and there is simply no way a student doesn’t know that it’s wrong to claim someone else’s work as their own.

People that plagiarize unintentionally fall into three general categories: (1) they’ve been taught poorly, (2) they just aren’t very good at it yet and need practice (and help!), or (3) in the course of the writing process, they just made a mistake. (Any combination of these is also possible). Students making these types of mistakes are the most likely to be allowed to revise. If you fall into one of these categories, don’t feel bad about it: treat as what it is – a skill that you need to learn and develop. I’ve had students in my office in tears at the very mention of plagiarism. If your teacher tells you you’ve plagiarized (unintentionally), it’s not a comment on your character. The teacher is trying to help you learn.

Using Note-Taking as a Strategy

THE best way to avoid plagiarizing is to understand and re-state the information you gather as you are gathering it. However you research – whether you print out copies, find books, or read everything on a screen – you’re going to need to take notes. However you take notes – whether that’s in a notebook, post-its, note cards, or in a word processing file – this is the step where you begin to develop your understanding of the material. The steps that follow are the ones I’ve developed to help me avoid plagiarism as I write.

  1. Use your own words. As you take notes from your textbook, research paper, website – whatever source you’re using for your paper – don’t just transcribe the material you intend to use. Put it into your own words. That means that you take the information into your brain, you think about it, come to some understanding of the material, and then write it out in words and in sentence structures that YOU would use. It doesn’t matter, at the note-taking stage, if you use incomplete sentences, slang or even curse words. Your notes are for you and no one else, and they show your understanding.
  2. Quote only when you have to. If you find a series of words, a sentence, or 2-3 sentences that you just can’t seem to paraphrase, that’s when you know it’s time to quote. As you record the quote in your notes, make sure to put parenthesis (these marks: “”) at the beginning and ending of the quoted section. If you need more to remind yourself that it’s a quote, make some kind of mark or highlight it. As you’re writing your paper, later, you might use the quote as-is, or you might find that you can paraphrase it then.
  3. Write the in-text citations in to your notes as you are taking them. At the end of the material you just paraphrased, include enough author information to identify them. Since I know my citation style well, I just paraphrase and then end it with the citation (for example: Smith 2017). For a quote, include the page number, because many citation styles require a page number if you quote. Tip: if your quote crosses a page, include both page numbers but also place a hash mark (/) to show where the quote splits. I can’t tell you how many times I thought I needed the entire quote but then ended up not using it all later. Then I had to go back to my source. 
  4. Make notes for yourself. When I get really tired or have just had enough, I lose the ability to paraphrase well. That’s generally a good sign that I need to stop, but sometimes I’m on a deadline and I can’t stop. That’s when I might write out what I know is a very BAD paraphrase, but also make a note next to it: “BAD paraphrase! Re-write!!”  (I’m not kidding.  I really do this). It’s OK to talk to yourself in your notes. As I said earlier – your notes are for you.
  5. Capture the end citation information in your notes. When I take notes, I usually go through an entire article or book and take all the notes I want from that piece. Then at the end of that block, I build the end note/reference for that source. What I wind up with, then, is a block of paraphrased and quoted material, all with in-text citations ready to go, with the end citation already formatted.

This system has been a long time in the making for me, and I’ve used different variations over the years. You may find that something different works well for you, but whatever it is – make sure you are putting material into your own words, quoting accurately, and keeping the material tied to its source.

Using my system, when I’m ready to write, all I have to do is organize, choose, and tweak the data I’ve collected. I open a new document file, and I copy and paste (or type if I’ve printed it) the material into the new document as I use it. And when I use a source for the first time, I grab the end reference and drop it into a list of references I’m building in the new document, so that my reference list is growing as I write. It saves me a lot of time and hassle at the end of the writing project, and I’m certain that I’ve given accurate credit where it is due.

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