Well, let’s state up front that the assumption behind this article is that plagiarism is something you want to avoid and want to make sure you understand the rules in order to effectively do that. When you write essays and other academic pieces of work you will be relying upon and quoting or paraphrasing the work of other people. That is how it is done.
It only becomes plagiarism when you do it without giving proper credit to the original author, which, in the case of academic work, is something you do with an in-text citation. An in-text citation is sometimes called a reference, although technically the reference is a full version of the citation that goes on a list at the end of the document. (For a full review of how these two fit together, see this article on how to reference here).
There are some very basic and easy rules to follow; cases in which it is obvious that a citation is needed and not having one will definitely mean plagiarism. If you quote any part of a sentence, particularly key words or ideas they must be placed in quotation marks and be cited in-text, along with the page number. Fail to put quotation marks, fail to reference it, you have committed the copyright sin of sins. But, since you can use whatever ideas or key words you want from other people’s work as long as you reference it, go ahead; just put your citation in.
The same is true for paraphrasing ideas. This can be tricky, because often we find that someone else has said what we were hoping to say, or makes a point that is important to our work and we wish to agree. In this case, you still need to use a reference, even if you’re paraphrasing an idea that you already had. If someone uses a good idea that you want to repeat, that’s cool. But first credit them, then in the sentences that follow you can expand with your own opinion. This is entirely acceptable in academic work. Failing to give credit to ideas that you are borrowing or paraphrasing is not. It’s that simple.
Do your research
Sometimes when researching in a given subject area it is possible to plagiarize unknowingly, which can be a very sticky situation. At the lower academic levels, if you follow the rules for all the known uses of other people’s words or ideas as listed above, you are going to be fine. However, as you move up toward higher accomplishments, the bar is raised for things like referencing. For example, if you are studying child development and nutrition, and you have several relevant references but you miss one that is recent and prominent in the field, but you end up reporting the very same ideas, you could end up in sticky situation.
Technically speaking you have not plagiarized, because you have not knowingly copied someone else’s ideas without giving credit. But you may find yourself having to prove a negative, meaning, you might have to prove that you didn’t know, or risk being criticized for failing to do thorough research. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen, so make sure you know the important things that have been said in your field. It’s okay to say them again, but make sure you give someone credit for it first. That is just how academia works!