Understanding and Avoiding Plagiarism

In our increasingly digital world, data and writing are easy to find and access. It's also usually easy to discover who created or posted the works. Knowing what plagiarism is and how to avoid it, will help you as you continue to contribute to the scholarly conversation in your field.

Plagiarism Defined

Sometimes, students may believe that if they're not directly copying another’s work that they're not committing plagiarism. However, the UNL Student Code of Conduct defines plagiarism more broadly, defining it as

“presenting the work of another as one’s own (i.e. without proper acknowledgement of the source) and submitting examinations, theses, reports, speeches, drawings, laboratory notes, or other academic work in whole or in part as one’s own when such work has been prepared by another person or copied from another person. Materials covered by this prohibition include, but are not limited to, text, video, audio, images, photographs, websites, electronic and online materials, and other intellectual property.” (University of Nebraska–Lincoln, 2014).

The most frequent errors that lead to plagiarism include

  • Not citing when you use ideas or information from another’s work. It's easy to overlook the contributing work that was foundational to your research but wasn’t directly quoted in your writings. If there was work previously done—or was related to—your topic, you should include them in your work and cite it!
  • Improper paraphrasing. Paraphrasing is more than changing a few words in the sentence so it’s "not a direct quote." Typically, paraphrasing is putting the thought or idea in your own words. This also may be done to combine several authors’ similar thoughts into one. In either of these cases, you should still cite the author’s work used. The Office of Graduate Studies website has examples of paraphrasing—correct and incorrect (Office of Graduate Studies, n.d.).
  • Not crediting the source of graphics or data. You should never use a graphic (chart, table, or figure) or data that someone else has created without first getting permission to do so and then citing the source from which you pulled the graphic or data. If an image is shared through a Creative Commons license, you should also be able to cite the Creative Commons license (e.g. "CC BY-NC-ND 2.0"). This guideline also applies to your own research that has been published. You must get the approval of the journal in which it was published to use it again in another document.
  • Not citing something that is not common knowledge The only exception to citing information gained from another source is if that information is considered common knowledge (e.g., Washington, D.C. is the capital of the United States). Common knowledge includes "facts that can be found in many places and are likely to be known by many people," however interpretations of those facts do need to be cited (Office of Graduate Studies, n.d.). If you are not sure if something counts as common knowledge, cite it anyway.

It’s always better to cite something when you are not sure if you should. Having a few too many citations is always preferable to having too few.

Why Plagiarism Matters

First, writing in your own words indicates that you can produce unique ideas and thoughts. Properly citing the works of others indicates that you can effectively understand and develop new ideas based on previous work and research. Both skills are essential for academia and many other careers.

Avoiding plagiarism is also a key part of academic integrity. This demonstrates respect for the work of others. It indicates how ethically you’ll behave as a researcher or professional. Depending on the severity, it is not uncommon for instances of plagiarism to result in academic suspension or expulsion. Significant enough cases have also been known to result in people losing their jobs or derailing their professional career.

Resources and Tools

There are many tools available on the internet for authors to use to check for plagiarism. If you choose to use them, you should investigate the reliability of their processes by trying to find reviews.

One of the best ways to make sure that you avoid plagiarizing work is to create a citation while working on your document. The UNL Libraries offer four different citation tools available for students and faculty. If you are unsure about which one would work best for you, the UNL Libraries has created a comparison chart to help you decide which one may work best for you.

Use one of the following online tools, available through the Libraries website, that will analyze written works for plagiarism.

  • Turnitin
    You can request an invitation to the Libraries' Turnitin course available through Canvas. Turnitin is a text-matching tool which checks electronically submitted papers against over 60 billion web pages, 600 million student papers, and 130 million academic journal articles. The software provides an originality report in which matching text is underlined, color coded, and linked to the original source. While many professors require students to use Turnitin for class assignments, this library based course is independent and allows students to submit and review their papers from the privacy of their own computer prior to submitting for their classes.
  • iThenticate:
    The UNL Libraries are piloting this software used by publishers to check citations listed in submitted articles prior to publication. Students can request a mediated consultation on any project where they are listed as sole or first author.

For more information on these two services please visit the Citation and Plagiarism tools page at the Libraries website.

Additional Resources


The University Libraries have produced a series of tutorials aimed at helping students get the most out of their library experience. These tutorials can be added to courses via the Canvas Commons or taken independently from the Libraries homepage

Library Staff

Not sure where to start? AskUs! for help via chat, email, text or telephone. Every department on campus has a Subject Librarian assigned to help with research, information literacy instruction or the creation of research assignments.


It's important that your work has your “voice” in the writing. Using others’ ideas and information is a great foundation to your research, but you need to make sure to include your own voice and insights in your writing. Proper citing of others’ work shows how your work builds on the work of prior researchers. As a writer of the document, checking your writing to make sure you have properly cited throughout your writing should always be among the final steps taken before submission to a publisher.


University of Nebraska-Lincoln. (2014) Student Code of Conduct. Retrieved from https://stuafs.unl.edu/student-code-of-conduct.

Office of Graduate Studies (n.d.). Academic Integrity. Retrieved from https://www.unl.edu/gradstudies/current/integrity#plagiarism

Thank you to the University Libraries staff for their contribution to this article.