Internal, open access

Avoiding accidental plagiarism

This guide shows you how to understand what plagiarism means and how to avoid unintentional plagiarism. It includes advice on:

Plagiarism in your academic work can have serious consequences. The University's definition of deliberate plagiarism is "the fraudulent representation of another's work as your own". But accusations of plagiarism may result from carelessness, poor practice, or lack of understanding. Avoiding unintentional plagiarism means knowing how and when to reference, understanding how to get the balance right between your own arguments and your research, and being meticulous about noting details when you are doing your research. Scroll down to the bottom of the page for links to guidance on other referencing systems.

Printable version of this guide (this is designed to be printed double-sided on A4 paper, then folded to make an A5 leaflet).

What does your department say…?

Check your course handbook (usually available online if you don't have a copy) to see what your department says about plagiarism.

When you need to include a reference

There is a common misconception that you only need to include a reference when you use a direct quote. In fact you should always acknowledge your source when you include an idea or argument that you have found in the course of your research.

Include a reference for:

  • direct quotes

  • paraphrases or summaries

  • a map, graph, or diagram taken from another source

  • someone else's idea explained in your own words

Do not include a reference for:

  • statements that are common knowledge, either generally or within your topic. (For example, "The sun rises in the east and sets in the west", or "Descartes' cogito illustrates the notion of philosophical doubt.")

  • your own ideas and arguments

  • your analysis or criticisms of other people's ideas

back to top

Getting the balance between your research and your own arguments

Students often worry that referencing everything they have read will make their work look like it is just a collection of other people's ideas. To avoid this, remember to include your own analysis, interpretation and criticisms of the works you have read. In UK higher education, your written assignments are expected to demonstrate two things:

  1. that you have read widely and appropriately;

  2. that you understand what you have read, which you show by interpreting it in relation to the brief for your assignment and the argument you are making.

For every statement or argument you make, check that you have:

- some evidence - a reference to your reading or practical research;

- some analysis, interpretation or criticism - consider what you think of the statement or argument. Do you agree or disagree? What makes you agree or disagree – something you've read? Something from your own experience? A counter-argument?

Writing an assignment involves using academic evidence to support and strengthen your own arguments – not to replace them. So before you include a quote or paraphrase, consider whether it is really necessary: is it doing a useful job as evidence for a statement or argument that you are making, or is it just there to show that you've read the work? Note that it is bad practice to include a lot of direct quotes – consider whether it is necessary to have the exact words or whether it might be better to paraphrase. Avoid quoting whole passages unless absolutely necessary.

Tip: Paraphrasing can be confusing - how can you write it in your own words when the original author has already expressed it as clearly as it can be expressed? Have a look at our video tutorials on paraphrasing to help you understand how to make this useful skill work for you:

Using paraphrases

Effective paraphrasing for postgrads

back to top

Working with other students

It's often useful to discuss your work with other students, and sometimes you will be explicitly asked to work with others on joint projects. In most cases each student will be expected to write up the project individually and completely in their own words (though you should acknowledge your co-researchers). Very occasionally you may be asked to submit a collective piece, in which case all co-researchers should agree the final version and be named on the title page or in the heading.

What does your department do…?

Always check with your tutor how a joint project should be written-up and submitted.

back to top

Good practice in note-taking

Always include details of your source when you make notes (author, title, year of publication, page number etc) – it's easier to do this as you go along than try to find it later. If you do forget, try searching on the Library catalogue (Unicorn) if you know what the book is or, if not, on the Internet with any details you have. If you have a quote, put it into quotation marks and use it as your search term. Library staff can help to trace lost references. If you really can't find the details, don't use it.

It's better to write notes by hand than to type them into your computer, so you're not tempted to cut and paste from your notes directly into your assignment. This results in bad writing style and the danger of accidental plagiarism. Read with the pen on the table - only pick it up when there's something useful to note.

Top tip…

Have a system when you're making notes, so you can see at once which are paraphrases or summaries, which are direct quotes ("…"), and which are your own ideas (underline or circle?).

See our guide to  Effective note-taking for more on this topic.

back to top

For more on referencing, see...

Using references in your work

Citations and bibliographies

LearnHigher Referencing website

Citing references - joint Study Advice and Library guide

Harvard Referencing Examples - a comprehensive guide to Harvard Referencing from Staffordshire University, with examples of how to reference a wide range of unusual sources including TV programmes, lectures, and Acts of Parliament.

Guide to the Harvard system of referencing - a very useful guide to the practice and details of referencing and writing citations from Anglia Ruskin University Library. 

BUFVC Audio Visual Citation Guidelines - from the British Universities Film and Video Council, includes film, television and radio programmes, podcasts, adverts and many other audiovisual sources.

Effective note-taking

Or try this interactive resource on Preventing Plagiarism

Download a printable version of our Study Guide on Avoiding Accidental Plagiarism. (These guides are designed to be printed double-sided on A4 and folded to A5.) 

Other styles of referencing

Oxford referencing system - basic principles from the University of New South Wales

Oxford referencing system - more detailed guide from Deakin University, Australia

APA referencing style - basic principles - once you've opened the tutorial (uses Flash), use the outline to navigate to the sections on referencing. For more detailed information, the full manual is accessed via the Publication Manual tab.

MHRA Style Guide - a link to download the full manual. Once you have downloaded it, use the bookmarks to navigate to Chapter 11 on References.

Chicago Manual of Style Online - includes a Quick Guide to using Chicago style for citations, and the Chicago Q and A which is a bank of questions and answers to more complex referencing queries: useful guidance for postgraduates working with more unusual and less easily-referenced materials, whatever style of referencing you are using.

OSCOLA - specialist referencing system for Law. You can download the whole guide here, but you will probably only need the Quick Reference Guide.

Things to do now


Contact us

  • Telephone:
    +44 (0)118 378 4242
  • In person: Room 103, 1st floor, The Library (front desk staffed 10-4 in termtime)
  • Comments and feedback
We are happy for you to link to these pages for educational use but, if you are not from the University of Reading, please let us know.

Follow us

Page navigation

News & events

On campus over the summer? So are we!

If you want to discuss:

- Doing your Masters or undergrad dissertation

- Working on your PhD

- Developing your skills for Part 2 or 3

- Preparing for exam resits

...or any other aspect of studying...

We are available all summer for booked appointments. Our 30 minute sessions are friendly and confidential.

Contact us by email or phone to book an appointment.

If you're not on campus, check out our Study Guides and Video Tutorials for 24/7 Study Advice, and follow us on Twitter for timely tips and advice!



Search Form

A-Z lists