Paraphrasing vs plagiarism

Paraphrasing cartoonThe paraphrasing and plagiarism debate has been prevalent for the past few years. An increasing number of students at University are being accused of plagiarism, and sometimes it is difficult to distinguish the honest students from the ones who have genuinely made a mistake.

Researching and writing is a large part of University life, but it doesn’t just apply to academic institutions. Certain professions require the correct application of paraphrasing, and the same rules apply when it comes to plagiarism.

The rules are quite simple when it comes to plagiarism – to ethically and lawfully use someone else’s content or information, you must paraphrase and/or reference these sources correctly. In other words, you must clearly reference and state to the reader that you are citing someone else’s content and you are making it very clear this is not your own original work and you are simply referring to it.

One of the best ways to represent your own work, as well as another authors, is to fully understand the information and to present it in your own words, whilst still providing credit to the original author.


So what exactly does paraphrasing mean?

Basically, paraphrasing means to express the meaning of something written or spoken using different words. So instead of using the exact same words, you interpret and understand the meaning and put this down into your own words, and in most cases, elaborate and investigate further.

So when paraphrasing a source, you are essentially expressing the concept and ideas you’ve discovered during your research. For example, when constructing an essay or dissertation, you are required to carry out research and then explain your findings. Your interpretation and understanding of this research is then implemented into the creation of an essay or dissertation and written down in your own words.

What paraphrasing is NOT is just changing the words for different words. If you could just take others’ essays and change the words around and hand them in, this would make the essay writing process very easy – and very pointless. This is plagiarism – not paraphrasing!

Papers that in addition present new concepts and ideas are naturally awarded higher marks!

Of course, throughout the writing you will want to use some direct quotes from the sources you’ve been researching, and this is when you are required to reference and cite these quotes. Ideally, you are not meant to use a long section of quotes as this could still be considered plagiarism.

You are always required to reference the source of your information, no matter whether you decide to use direct quotes or your own words and interpretation. So above all else, if you use someone else’s direct quotes, or even just there ideas, you must always cite the source.

Paraphrasing word cloud

An example of paraphrasing

Here is an example of paraphrasing of a passage of text.

Original passage:

Glucosamine sulphate and glucosamine hydrochloride are nutritional supplements. Animal studies have found that glucosamine can both delay the breakdown of and repair damaged cartilage. The results for the use of glucosamine for osteoarthritis are mixed and the size of the effect is modest. There’s some evidence that more recent trials and those using higher-quality methods are less likely to show a benefit. Evidence from trials on glucosamine hydrochloride is scarce and not convincing.


Paraphrased passage:

Many sufferers of arthristis take gloucosamine sulphate supplements on a regular basis as they believe that the supplements are beneficial for delaying the breakdown of cartilige and can aid in the repair of damaged cartilage. There have been a number of studies to support this conclusion, although they were animal rather than human trials. Although there are thousands of anecdotal accounts as to its effectiveness in the treatment of osteoarthritis, the outcomes of the studies on its use for that purpose have been mixed, and any positive effects were modest.

The first thing that may stand out to you is that the paraphrased passage does not merely reword the original material. Instead, it picks out the points that are salient to the writer’s discussion, and also adds to the original material. For example, the new paraphraph points out that there are many anecdotal accounts as to glucosamine’s effectiveness – this point would also need a separate reference to where that information was found. The new paragraph also highlights that the trials were animal trials, not human trials – this is in the original but the new version emphasises it in a way that shows the results of those trials might not be entirely reliable.

Copying a passage and simply changing the words around is NOT paraphrasing – this is a form of plagiarism. Instead, you need to use some of the material within your own discussion and arguments, rewording it and bringing out points relevant to your essay to show your understanding of the material and its relevance to your discussion.

Don’t forget that even though you have paraphrased the passage, you DO need to give credit to the original by means of a reference.

Paraphrasing diagram
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If you transfer your research word for word into the essay without giving credit, then this would be deemed as plagiarism. In some cases, students may accidentally plagiarise and fail to reference correctly. The University however will still see this as plagiarism and either request that you make minor adjustments, or may even take this further with more serious consequences (depending on the amount of suspected plagiarism).

To emphasise the point once again, it is also classed as plagiarism if you paraphrase the information and only change around the words. So be careful not to assume that you can merely swap around or substitute the words from an original source. This type of paraphrasing crosses over to plagiarism!

The instant you use another person’s thoughts, ideas, concepts, spoken or written words without giving them appropriate credit, you are committing plagiarism. Obviously it goes without saying that using someone else’s work and research is wrong and extremely unethical in all situations. But no matter how honest you may be – mistakes can still be made.

RAP paraphrasing strategy
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How to escape plagiarism

One of the best methods to avoid plagiarism is to take lots of notes from the sources you have found whilst conducting research. By writing lots of notes you are already starting to formulate your own understanding and interpretation, which will make it much easier when you come to write the paper.

If you don’t take notes, then you run the risk of copying the original content by mistakes, which is very easy to do after spending hours and hours searching for sources!

Another great technique to help avoid plagiarising is to research numerous sources rather than just one or two. That way, not only will you stand a good chance of achieving higher marks for your research, you will also give yourself a much better chance of avoiding plagiarism if your sources are varied and combined. If however you do still find a sentence or paragraph that has very similar wording to the original source, then you must rewrite this into your own words and double check that you’ve fully understood its meaning. As a rough guide, if you’re not adding anything to the original material – some analysis or observation – you’re probably not paraphrasing properly.

As well as using a reference page or section, you should also reference the info and sources within the actual text using Footnotes or Harvard referencing (in-text citation). Your University will typically stipulate which style of referencing is required, so don’t forget to check with your tutor. The main thing to remember is to ensure you state where you got your information, so you don’t run the risk of being accused of plagiarism.

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