Ask the Doctor: accidental plagiarism

Hello there, “The Doctor’ here. I’m back to give you some further tips on various aspects of coping with academic life. This time, as it is the start of a new academic year, I am going to write about the tricky topic of “accidental plagiarism’.

I have referred to this form of plagiarism as “tricky’ because it is frequently very difficult to avoid unless you take care with referencing etc. from the beginning.

In addition to this, accidental plagiarism is possibly the easiest way to fall foul of the academic process because most colleges and universities take a very strict line regarding plagiarism of any kind and are likely, at the very least, to reduce your mark, if they suspect you have plagiarised.

Plagiarism cartoon

What exactly is “accidental plagiarism’?

Accidental plagiarism is when, in all innocence, the ideas of another appear in your work as if they are your own. It differs from deliberate plagiarism because you have not set out to cheat in accidental plagiarism, whereas in deliberate plagiarism you have.

How to avoid “accidental plagiarism’

The problem is that it can often be difficult to prove that you did not set out to steal someone else’s ideas when you accidentally plagiarised – in fact, it often happens to professional authors, as we commonly read in the press – so the answer is to ensure that you cite every reference you make, however small, to ideas other than your own.

In fact, even when you believe you have had an original thought, you need to check that no-one else has got there first – which is highly likely in academic life as it’s very difficult to say something completely new. In a case like this, you need to put forward your point and then add, for example, “as Brown has pointed out’; then give the reference. This way you show that you have had a good idea which is in accord with an academic source.

Careful referencing

When you began your course, you should have been given details of how to reference in the style required by your college or university and your particular discipline. These fall into two main types: footnotes referencing and parenthetical referencing. Both require you to provide a list of sources used at the end of your work.

However, you should never leave your referencing until your work is completed because in the space between writing and referencing mistakes very frequently occur.

What you should do is make a note of a source used when you use it i.e. when you are making notes. If you do this, you will know at the earliest stage exactly where you sourced an idea that you later used in your completed work.

Doing this also helps you when you are writing your work because you don’t have to waste valuable time re-tracing your steps and attempting to sort out which ideas are original and which are not.

How can I be sure I haven’t “accidentally plagiarised’?

The best way to ensure that there is no plagiarism in your completed work is to use a scanner like The results of a scan will tell you in detail where there are areas in your work that occur elsewhere.

If you have accidentally included extracts from your notes without citation that are published then the scan report will highlight them and you can add a citation.

You can be sure that the scanner will identify verbatim notes because the same words and phrases that are in your work will appear in the original source.

However, if you have paraphrased it may be more difficult to detect.

In the latter case, “it is better to be safe than sorry’, as they say, so read through your essay again, cross-referencing with the scan result, and if anything seems different from how you would normally write then go back to your notes and check anything about which you are unsure.

As a tutor and lecturer with over thirty years experience in higher education, I can tell you quite positively that if you can’t tell the difference between your own style of writing and that of a published academic, your tutors most definitely will be able to do so!

A final thought …

There is no need to worry about plagiarism if you follow the above advice but it goes without saying that you should never consider deliberate plagiarism – apart from anything else, you’ll get caught and you wouldn’t want that, would you? I’ll be back again soon with more advice, until then “good luck’!

Leave a comment